Glare – 3.4

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Kenzie sprinted toward the wall, and took a flying kick at it.  The wall broke, split at a diagonal, the upper half sliding down the split until the corner stabbed the ground.  Kenzie backed up swiftly before the section of wall toppled and fell to the ground.

“I’m clearly the strongest member of the team,” she said.

“You’re the lamest,” Chris said.

“Can I try it again?” Kenzie asked, ignoring Chris.  “Rain?”

“Be careful,” Sveta said.

“I will.  I want to test stuff.  Can I try it again?”

Rain stood from the rock he was sitting on, and held one hand out to the side.  The silver-white blade he created had a slight crescent shape to it.  He swung his arm and threw it, for lack of a better word.  It traced an arc, more a boomerang in flight than an arrow or thrown weapon, and cut deep into the wall that Tristan had left as a permanent fixture.  A silver-white line was left along the length of the wall.

Kenzie raised her flash gun, and she shot the wall.  Nothing happened.

She approached the wall, and she had her eyehook snake out from where it was attached to her belt, pincers open, slapping against the wall.  She pushed with the eyehook.

“Hurry,” Rain said.

Kenzie continued using the eyehook to push, to no avail.  She moved the hook around to the wall’s edge, grabbed the length of the eyehook, and pulled, adding her strength to the mechanical arm’s.

Stone slid easily against stone, and the wall was pulled down, cleanly cut where the silver line had been drawn.

“I could do this all day,” Kenzie said.

“It’s not a bad power,” I said.

“I never said it was bad,” Rain said.  He sat back down.  “It’s mediocre.  On certain days, it’s a little better.”

“Better how?  Size, speed, effectiveness, number you can throw?”

“All of the above, except maybe effectiveness.  And duration, I’d say.  Ten, twenty percent increase, if I had to guess.”

“Duration?”

“How long after I shoot stuff the line lasts.”

I turned to my laptop and I started typing that up.

“Not effectiveness?” Kenzie asked, as she rejoined us.  She had her phone out and walked without looking where she was going.

Sveta and Tristan were having a conversation off to one side, Ashley had gone back to the library to use the washroom, which had freed Kenzie to rejoin us, and Chris was getting dressed again while under the cover of the giant-size shorts.

“It’s kind of one thing or the other,” Rain said.  “Either it breaks or it doesn’t.”

“I’m looking at the data from my eyehook,” Kenzie said.  “It didn’t work with your power until after I started helping it.  Twenty point two pounds of force total, that’s nine point one six kilograms, and then the break happened.  What if it’s easier to break things when your power is better?”

“It could be,” Rain said.

“It’s good thinking,” I said.

Kenzie nodded, eyes still on her phone, and said, “Can you throw another?”

“More tests?” Rain asked.

“No.  Breaking stuff like this is a ton of fun,” Kenzie said.

Rain stood, looked around, and then created another blade of silver-white light.  He threw it at the half-stick Chris had left impaled in the hillside.  The blade passed through the dead-tree stick, leaving a white line in it a good few feet above the ground, and continued forward as two separate segments flying in parallel, with a narrow gap in the middle.  One hit a tree, and the other hit the ground.

Kenzie ran off, handing her phone to her eyehook.

“What happens if you hit a person?” I asked.

“I tried on livestock, a goat.  Silver line.”

“And?”

“The goat ran off, jumped up onto a tractor tire, then jumped down.  The impact as she jumped down was what did it.  Clean cut.”

“Possibly over twenty pounds of force in that impact?”

“I guess,” Rain said.

Kenzie had reached the rod and found the silver line was higher than she could reach.  She began rolling a nearby rock closer, to give herself a leg up.

Chris, barefoot, wearing his t-shirt and shorts, broke into a sprint.  As Kenzie climbed up onto the rock, Chris threw himself at the rod, hard, body-checking it.  It broke in two at the silver line, the top half toppling.

Kenzie made the kind of high-pitched noise only a prepubescent girl could, and drew her flash gun.  She began shooting Chris repeatedly, while he rolled in the grass, laughing, arms around his face.

“What happens when you hit the ground?” I asked.

“Not much, most of the time.  I guess you get a fissure, but it doesn’t really do much, because the line is so clean.”

“Kenzie!” I called out.

She stopped shooting Chris and turned to look.

“Stomp on the line on the ground?  I’m curious!”

She ran off, leaving Chris where he was.

“Can you explain the schedule, then?  The powers wax and wane?”

Rain sighed.

“Sorry, if I’m grilling you a little too much.  I’m trying to get my head around this.”

“I see them in my dreams.  I never get a good night’s sleep, never dream normally.  Just… them.  And they see me.  We take turns, and when my turn comes up, I get a bit of a power up.”

“That’s how you knew Snag’s description, before you knew his name.”

Rain nodded.

Off in the distance, Kenzie stomped on the silver line in the grass.  There was a bit of dust, and some grass stalks fell, but I didn’t see anything else.  She looked at us and shrugged.

“Every five days, I get my turn, and I’m a little bit stronger.  There are other times I’m stronger, but it’s complicated.”

“Every five?  There’s four others?”

“Three others,” Rain said.

“What’s…?”

“The day in the rotation after me, it’s a blank space.  My running theory is that there was a fifth member of the cluster, but they died before the powers set in.  Free power-up, goes to someone random.  Doesn’t always line up with our power, so on those days, I can sometimes have more tinker power, or more mover power, more emotion power.  A taste of what I could be.”

“Once every twenty days, on average.”

“Never lining up with my days,” he said.  He sighed.  “Through the dreams I’ve seen them unmasked and they’ve seen me.  They hate me and I’m not overly fond of them.  They’re always there, every night, and it’s pretty obvious how much they despise me.  It’s where Tristan and I have that shared experience, kind of.”

“People you can’t get away from,” I said.

“You’re talking about your cluster?” Tristan asked, joining the conversation.  Sveta was behind him.

“Yeah.”

Tristan sat down on the rock beside Rain.  I scooted over so Sveta could sit beside me.

“These people want you dead?  How likely is it they go forward with this hit?”

“Ninety-nine point eight percent likely,” Rain said.

“What’s the point two?” Sveta asked.

“They all die or get arrested before they get around to it,” Rain said.

“You seem pretty cavalier about traveling into the city,” I said.  “You caught a train today?”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “Again, it’s the dreams, I can pick up a little, and I can throw them off a little.  The thing about being outnumbered in this situation is that I have a lot of opportunities to pick up details.  One clue from any of them can help a lot.”

“Details like?”

“The woman is injured, and Snag wants to repair the arm you trashed.  That buys me a few days.  So, uh, thank you.”

“The third one won’t come after you alone?”

“He’s a guy, a little older than me.  Glasses.  He’s the person with the tinker power.  I haven’t picked up much about him, but he doesn’t interact with people much.  Less than Snag or the woman, and Snag is an asshole and the woman is mute, so that should tell you something.”

“There’s an advantage in that,” Tristan said.  “If they aren’t socially adroit and you are-”

“I’m not,” Rain said.

“You’re better off than they are and that counts for something,” Tristan said.

“They have money and resources, and that more than makes up for it,” Rain said.  He looked at me.  “We’re suspicious they hired Tattletale to track me down.”

“Ah,” I said.  I thought about that.  “I honestly can’t think of someone worse to have on your trail.”

“She’s good enough to take over a city and get away with it,” Rain said.

“That’s not even it,” I said.  “She destroys people.”

“Are we talking about group members behind their backs?” Kenzie asked, as she joined us.

“No,” Tristan said.  “We’re talking Tattletale.”

Over near the staff that had been made with the dead tree, Chris was lying in the grass, arms and legs spread, staring up at the sky.

“He’s okay?” I asked.

“He’s fine,” Kenzie said.

As if responding, Chris chuckled to himself, lying in the grass near the base of the hill.

“The Undersiders took over Brockton Bay, and they did it with Tattletale on point for most of it.  I’m not a hundred percent sure on any of this, but you can look at the events in the city starting with her taking power.  Bank robbery, Undersiders succeed, they run into the Wards, me, and my sister.  Tattletale insinuates knowledge of my sister’s deepest secrets, and mine.  My sister goes off the deep end.  ABB are provoked following an arrest of their leader and an interaction with the Undersiders, with Tattletale.  They’re toppled with a concerted effort on the part of the villains, with intel passed to the heroes by the villains.”

“By Tattletale,” Tristan said.

“In large part.  Empire Eighty-Eight get outed, secret identities revealed.  Undersiders are the focus of the blame, and a number of people die in the ensuing rampage.  Weeks and months of violence and chaos in Brockton Bay feed into the Endbringer attack on the city.  Half of my family died because of that.”

“I’m so sorry,” Sveta said.

I reached out for her hand and gave it a waggle.  “It should be noted that in the hospital after the attack, Tattletale talked to the leaders of various hero teams about Leviathan’s strengths and weaknesses.  Info that was then used to beat down Behemoth enough to let Scion finish him off.”

“That could be a coincidence,” Rain said.

He didn’t say it in a dismissive way.  He said it like he was a little scared, and he wanted something to cling to.

I wanted to drive reality home, though.  Better to scare him and have him alive than the alternative.

“Possibly.  But I’m more inclined to see her as a force multiplier or a kind of thinker version of what you do with your power, creating weak points for others to capitalize on.  We see a lot of these coincidences.  After the Endbringer, the Slaughterhouse Nine visit and do a hell of a lot of damage, but they also lose several key members.  The weaknesses of several key members are revealed and the members are removed.”

“You might want to go easy on talking about those guys when Ashley gets back,” Kenzie said.

“Okay,” I said.  “It’s just one data point in a series.  The last remaining mastermind of the city falls, Coil.  The PRT directors die.  Twice, in quick succession.  Weaknesses are targeted and capitalized on.  Alexandria dies in Brockton Bay, at the hands of a girl who had apparently wanted to be a hero, but who was converted to the villains’ side.  Flechette, a hero, a minor friend of mine?  Apparently converted.  Accord edges into the Undersiders’ turf.  He dies when the Behemoth fight happens.  What do you think happens with his resources and power?  Because I’m betting it’s the same as what happened with Coil’s.”

“And now she runs one of the major settlement points,” Rain said.  He still sounded spooked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I don’t have all of the information, but she got to that point by being one of the masterminds and playing the game well.  She was aggressive when the city was vulnerable and she was passive when it wasn’t.  The moment Gold Morning came around, I get the impression she mobilized hard, she was ready to expand and capitalize on the situation with more of that aggression.  Again, I’m not 100% on all of that.  But I can say with reasonable confidence that she’s one of the most dangerous, capable people on Gimel.”

“What am I supposed to do, then?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

Sveta elbowed me.  “You have to give him more than that.  You can’t scare him and not give him something.”

“Please,” Rain said.

I thought for a few seconds.

“She bleeds,” I said.  “She gets tired, and she looked really fucking tired when I saw her.  She has a lot on her plate, and I don’t think you’re a primary focus.  Which is good.  You don’t want to be her primary focus, because people who are tend to end up in pieces, one way or another.”

“Alright,” Rain said, sounding anything but.

“She…” I started.  I bit my tongue.

“What?” Tristan asked.

“I don’t want to jump to conclusions.  I don’t want to give you the wrong impressions, either.”

“Any impressions help,” Tristan said.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “But what she said when I talked to her, the way she wanted to make herself out to be one of the good guys, bringing good things to others…”

“Oh,” Kenzie said.  She fiddled with her phone.

“It doesn’t necessarily jibe with her working with people who are out for blood and murder.  She seems to want to be a very low-key villain or even a Robin-Hood type desperado while simultaneously leaving a trail of bodies in her wake, or she wants to portray herself as such,” I said.

“I’m now sharing the love and bringing some of that security, stability, and safety to others, in my very, very roundabout way,”  Kenzie’s phone said, in Tattletale’s voice.

“Yeah, that’s it, thank you,” I said.  Kenzie gave me a thumbs up.  I felt a bit of the heebie-jeebies at having heard Tattletale’s voice without being braced for it.  It took me a moment to gather my thoughts before I added, “It makes me wonder what she would say if she were told that Snag and the other two were out for your head.”

“She could be full of shit,” Sveta said.

“She could be,” I admitted.  “Trouble of dealing with masterminds is you can’t ever know.”

“Makes me think,” Tristan said.  “We really should have that talk about our group’s game plan.”

“We can’t have that talk without Ashley,” Kenzie said.

“Or Chris,” Sveta said.

Kenzie turned to look at Chris, before giving us a very unenthused, “Yeah.”

“Pretty quick turnaround on your opinion of Chris,” I said.

“It’s not turned around.  It’s a love-hate relationship,” Kenzie said.  “Sometimes I really like him and sometimes I really don’t.  Right now is one of those times I really don’t.  I was having fun.”

“There will be other times you can fool around with my power, and with others,” Rain said.

“Yeah,” Kenzie said.  She looked at Rain and smiled.  “We’re gonna help you with your thing.”

A bit of a non-sequitur, but I wasn’t going to draw attention to it.  “Do you want to call Ashley or see what’s holding her up?  If she’s not up to having this conversation, that’s okay too.”

“I’ll call her,” Kenzie said, hopping up from her seat.  She wandered off, her eyehook holding her phone to her ear.

“I’ll get Chris,” Sveta said.

As Sveta vacated the space on the bench to my left, I turned to the laptop to my right.  I typed up a few things about Rain’s power, then paged up and down some to look at the entries for the individual powers.  There was a lot more to write up before I had an actual outline I could pitch to the Wardens.  If they were even interested in working with the overarching cape community on that level.

I hoped they were.  The villains had a lot of advantages, from the fact they often had the initiative to the fact that their work often made money, and the fact that the chaos and damage they wrought often created more opportunities, henchmen, and money for them.  Heroes who did well, conversely, often put themselves out of work.

One of the few advantages our side had was that the heroes tended to work together.  If we did it right, we walked away with allies.  I had people like Gilpatrick, Crystal, and Mrs. Yamada.

“How’s Erin?” Tristan asked.

“She’s good.  She’s applying for jobs today.  We’re in an awkward spot for it, though, not many locations, a lot of people around our age want those jobs, and it’s a long drive in to get to work.  I think those places open at six.  It might mean waking up at four to get to work on time.”

Sveta dragged Chris to the collection of rocks, benches, and seats.  Chris climbed up to his seat, sitting on the rock Kenzie had been using.  I was pretty clear he was still blind, from the way he stared off into space.

“There are times I don’t get to sleep until four,” Chris said, talking to the open air.

“That’s not good,” Sveta said.  “Don’t do that.”

“It’s a chance to be independent,” Tristan said.  “If she can get the job.  She gives off a good impression, so I can imagine it happening.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.

“Who is she?” I asked.  “Can I ask?”

“Just a friend,” Rain said.  “I’ve always grown up in the middle of nowhere, so when my family was getting settled after Gold Morning, we saw all the incentives they were offering to people willing to get a headstart on agriculture and it seemed natural, you know?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Erin’s parents were kind of the opposite.  City people through and through, something in them broke after Gold Morning.  They couldn’t bring themselves to join the rat race again, I think.  They were given the option for the simple life and they took it.  Erin got dragged with.”

“And you connected.”

“She was having a hard time, because y’know, she stands out when a lot of people are hurt and angry and looking to lash out.  She went looking for a hiding place and she stumbled on my workshop.  She’s been a real help, from before I even had the therapy, helping me get figured out, listening to me, helping me research.  I… don’t really know what she gets out of the deal, from me.”

“I can think of a few things she gets from you,” Tristan said.

“I appreciate you saying that, I’m not sure I see it though,” Rain said.

I saw Kenzie react to Ashley’s appearance before I saw Ashley.  She made her way up the less sloped side of the hill, holding a pair of water bottles.

“Having a friend with powers is pretty neat,” I said to Rain.

“Yeah.  For sure,” he said.

“And while I don’t know you that well, you seem very thoughtful.”

“And there’s the brooding, mysterious part of it,” Kenzie said.  “Girls like that.  You and Chris are similar like that.”

“I see,” Rain said.  He frowned a bit.

“I’m picturing the expression on your face,” Chris said, before laughing.

“How long’s he going to be blind?” I asked.

“Could be ten minutes, could be an hour or two,” Kenzie said, as she skip-walked over to sit down at Ashley’s side as Ashley took her seat.

An hour or two?

“You got anywhere to be, Chris?” I asked.

“No family, nobody that cares that much,” he said.  “I’m one of the lost boys, living in the institution.”

“I know what that’s like,” Kenzie said.  “The institution.  It’s not fun.”

“Personally?  I don’t give a shit, and they don’t give a shit about me, I could disappear tomorrow and nobody would blink.”

“We’d blink,” Kenzie said.

“You would,” Chris said.  “But you’re lame like that.”

“I’m sorry to hear about your situation,” I said.

“It’s fine,” Chris said, with emphasis, still staring off into space.  Blindly, he rummaged in one pocket, pulling out a plastic kit.  “It’s- it’s freeing.  All I care about is that I eat three square meals, since nourishment matters for my power, and having a place to sleep.  Strip away everything else, and it’s all any of us want.”

“Some of us want people to keep close to us,” Kenzie said.

“Not me,” Chris said.  He opened the kit and drew out a pair of pliers.

“Your opinions may change as you hit puberty,” Tristan said.

“I’m already started on that, I’m not going to go into any details, and I really don’t think my feelings are going to change,” Chris replied.  He seemed to reconsider, then said, “I really hope they don’t.”

I glanced at Ashley.  She’d been quiet since sitting down.  The last time I’d reached out hadn’t ended well.  Was I supposed to ignore her now, leave her alone while she wound herself down?

“How about we talk about your idea, Tristan?” I asked.

“It’s getting later in the afternoon,” Sveta said.  “And Kenzie has dinner with her parents.  It would be good to get it out of the way.”

“I can skip it if I have to,” Kenzie said.

“You shouldn’t,” I said.

Tristan shifted position, metal sliding against smooth stone.  “The plan.  We’ve only got the broad strokes worked out, so if you want to help hammer it out, Victoria, it would really help.”

“Okay.”

“Protecting Rain in the coming weeks is essential.  My starting point for thinking about this plan was thinking how we might cover all the bases we want to cover.  We need to keep the older members of the group free enough to help Rain with whatever he needs help with.  Kenzie wants to do something integral to the group, and while she can help keep an eye out, it’s easy for her to take too much of a backseat role.”

“Am I taking a frontseat role then?”

“I’m- not exactly.  There’s a lot about this that’s counterintuitive.  My first instinct is to think, hey, I want to make money, I want to be out there doing things.  But that leaves us open to interference and distraction.  So… what if we go covert?”

“Covert?” I asked.

“Nobody knows Ashley is on the side of the good guys for the time being.  She’s really good at the villainous persona and atmosphere.”

“Thank you,” Ashley said.

“And then there’s Chris, who can be monstrous, appear, disappear, then show up again as someone or something else.”

I glanced at Chris.  Chris had two sets of pliers in his mouth.  He was readjusting his braces.

“The masterminds and the organizations are masterminding and getting organized.  Hollow Point is one example of that, and Tattletale’s degree of involvement, that’s another example.  I didn’t get the impression Tattletale was really aware that we were a team, so I think this works.”

“Take all things mastermind with a grain of salt,” I said.

“Of course,” Tristan said, quickly enough that I wondered if he’d bothered with that grain of salt.  “Okay, so what if we do like- actually, it’s like Victoria was saying a few minutes ago, about creating and capitalizing on weak points-”

“She was telling us more about Tattletale,” Kenzie told Ashley.

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  “Look, no rush, we do this slow and careful.  We put you guys out there, Ashley and Chris can plant cameras, Kenzie handles backend, we gather all the data we can, and we find out what the masterminds are doing and where the organizations are most vulnerable.”

“Then we hit them,” Ashley said.

“Maybe,” Tristan said.  “Maybe.  We assess the situation, we maybe even spread disinformation, and then we have discussions, involving other cape teams, maybe.  If it seems doable, we hit them.  We have a lot going for us if we want to blitz the enemy or ruin a plan in progress.  When it’s time to make our play, we can do big, we can hit hard, and we can move fast.  If it doesn’t seem doable, we sell the info to another cape team.”

“I like that you’re thinking about the money,” I said.  “How do you sustain things if you’re going ahead and handling the mission on your own?”

“I’m thinking we don’t,” Tristan said.  “I’m not wanting to set up a headquarters, we wouldn’t necessarily have employees or staff, we can figure something out for costume.”

“It’s a long, hard road to gather that kind of intel and then act on it at just the right time.  It’s a test of patience,” I said.  “That patience gets tested further when your pockets are empty.”

“I hear you,” Tristan said.  “It helps some that we have a lot of people here who are subsidized or not entirely out on their own.  Kenzie gets money from her parents, Chris has his meals and shelter through the institution.

“I think we have an advantage there,” Sveta said, quiet.  “Because the thing that defines us, and I don’t think it defined the Irregulars like this, and it didn’t define the Wards, like Weld described them… we all need to be out there.  We need this.  That makes us stick it out.”

There were nods around the group.  Even Chris.  The heads that weren’t nodding were smiling, like Ashley’s, or looking very serious in a way that made me sure they were in agreement, like Rain was.

I allowed myself to nod as well.

“Okay,” I said.  “I might be able to make some recommendations about funding, so you won’t be too starved.  If you think you can gather intel that others might be interested in, I can talk to other teams on your behalf, or I can point you in the right direction if you want to handle that yourselves.  You’d tell them you have the capacity to get intel.  You may or may not want first dibs on these villains, but whatever happens, if they’ll pay a token amount, you’ll give up the info.  It serves a double purpose if you set it up as a dead man’s switch.  Worst comes to worst, the authorities get an email letting them know what you were up to and who you were up against.”

“They’d pay for that, you think?” Rain asked.  “Even if it’s us saying we’re taking first dibs, but we’ll give the info anyway?”

“I think it could be sold to them,” I said.  “Information comes at a premium, and every single team out there is wanting as clear a picture of where things stand as possible.”

“I do my thing, Chris does his thing, Kenzie does her thing,” Ashley said.  “Sveta, Tristan and I help Rain in the meantime.  When we have the intel, we hit them.  Take out key players, interfere with a key part of their business, and we leave them ruined.”

“We maybe hit them,” Tristan said, with emphasis on ‘maybe’.

“If we spend the time to get that far, you’ll be itching to see it the rest of the way through,” Ashley said.

“And then what?” I asked, before they could get in an argument.

“Hm?”

“Let’s assume it’s a success, or you hand off the intel.  What follows?”

“Depends on a lot of factors,” Tristan said.  “We could take another piece of data collected on the way and jump off from there, or we don’t just take money, and we go to another team and we trade intel for intel.  They tell us if they’ve got more tough nuts or tricky areas to tackle, and we use that as our next starting point.”

I nodded.

“What are you thinking?” Tristan asked.

“I… admit this makes a lot of sense.  It may be harder than you’re picturing.  Masterminds cover their asses, organizations have a lot of tools at their disposal.”

“If we get six pieces of a twenty-piece puzzle and we realize we can’t take things any further, we can still sell that intel,” Tristan said.

“Absolutely,’ I said.  “I’m trying to think about how that plays out in the long-term.”

“I don’t know,” Tristan said.  “There’s the stuff I just said, but I was mostly thinking about the next few steps.  I’d rather make calls based on the now and adapt later, depending on what comes up.”

“That’s fair,” I said.  “I’m trying to be mindful of consequences, these days.  You’d be making enemies, once people realized what you were doing and the role you’d played.  If you’re not careful, Ashley and Chris as background observers are cards you can only play a few times, in a limited fashion.”

“You can play me eight times,” Chris said, pulling the pliers out of his mouth, “After that they’ll probably catch on.”

“If you don’t change your head that much, then they’ll catch on sooner than that,” Tristan said.

“On that topic, I’m not sure I like Chris being out in the field like that,” Sveta said.

“I’m fine,” Chris said.  “I can handle that much.”

“I’m thinking Chris gets involved as a distraction.  A few minutes at a time, a monster shows up, overturns the status quo.  The kind of thing we do once every two weeks or once a month.”

“Yeah.  I’m good with that,” Chris said.

“I like it,” Rain said.  “I hate that I’m a burden at this stage.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Kenzie said.  She reached out to give Rain a pat on the knee with her eyehook.  “We’re all burdens in our own screwed up ways.”

My expression might have betrayed something, because Tristan looked my way.

“Yea or nay?” he asked.

“It reminds me of the Las Vegas capes,” I said.  “And a bit of Watchdog.”

“Is that a bad thing?” Tristan asked.

Las Vegas had been damned effective, as had Watchdog.  But where Las Vegas had been a subtle, careful player with a few questionable, mysterious individuals in their ranks making the most of their backgrounds and skills, much like this team in disposition and direction, they’d also been a team that had turned villain at a critical time.  Watchdog had been careful and scrupulous, making measured moves with the best intel and agents they had at their disposal, and Watchdog hadn’t survived Gold Morning as an organization.

Those were the only two data points I had, for teams like this.  Corruption and annihilation.

I couldn’t say for sure that it was a bad thing, but I couldn’t say it was a good thing either.

“It’s a thing,” I said.

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Glare – 3.3

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“You want a game plan?” Tristan said.  “Do you mean for here or for the big picture?”

I was thinking big picture, I thought, I have doubts right now and a plan would help.

Without voicing that, I said, “Here, but I’m open to hearing about either.  If you have something in mind.”

“I want to wait on the big picture stuff so we can include Rain into the discussion.  He and I chat regularly, and he’s heard some, but Ashley and I were talking while we waited for you and there’s bits to discuss.  Comfort levels.”

“Okay,” I said.  “We’ll focus on this for now.”

“I’m in charge, then?” Tristan asked.

“If Sveta is okay with it, you can give it a shot.”

“I’m okay with it,” Sveta said.

He made a small amused sound, his face obscured by his helmet, his hands busy adjusting the fit of his armor as he paced.  “There was a time I thought I might end up being in charge of Reach.  Things fell through before then.  I don’t know if my current mindset works for it, but let’s give this a try.”

I had my own bag, which I’d brought with me.  My computer, masks, and the flags, one red and one blue.  I fished out the flags, holding both in one hand, and put on one of the masks.

“Victoria, you and I are on defense, then,” he said.  “Ashley is going to go hard offense, that’s who she is, and I don’t see Chris holding back.  Sveta, you’re going on the attack.  You loop around, go the long way if you have to.  You might have to dodge Kenzie, but I think you can manage that okay.  It’s only her hook thing and flash gun.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Sveta said.

“Alright,” I said.

“I think the benefit here is that we all have some experience,” he said.

“Kind of,” Sveta said.

“They’re young.  Ashley too, in a weird way.  They’re led by Ashley and we know how she thinks.  I can put my confidence in you, Sveta, if you’re going for their flag.”

“I hope I deserve it.”

“I’m confident in myself and my ability to hold up against a two-person rush, assuming that’s what they do, and I know you’ve got a background, Victoria.”

“Yeah.  Confidence goes before the fall, though.  I think one of the things I regret most in the past is my overconfidence.”

“This is just an exercise.  If I’m wrong on this, I’ll own it.  Let me plant our flag and get my stuff to adjust my armor, I’ll be right with you.”

As he said it, another wall materialized behind us.  A fort with ten foot walls was slowly forming.  Tristan wasn’t even focusing that much on the construction, attention-wise.  He took the flag before walking off.

I had intentionally chosen a less level area.  We were on a hill, playing on a bit of a slope, roughly a ten degree decline with taller grass, weeds, and some pebbly dirt covering the area.  Some trees and rocks dotted the space between where their group would set up and where we would.

I had a few reasons for choosing the area.  Part of it played off something I had experienced with New Wave.  The team had always been split between the fliers and the people on the ground.  Me, Aunt Sarah, Crystal and Eric had all been airborne, while my Uncle Neil, Mom, and Dad had all been landbound.  It created a dilemma in logistics, and this slightly sloped ground and uneven terrain emphasized that logistics in a way that having to go through and around buildings might in the city.

Sveta functionally had a mover ability, I wasn’t sure about Chris’ capabilities, and Damsel and Rain both had some capabilities in that realm.  Supposedly.  I wanted to see how the more mobile members of the group worked in coordination with the others.

It was interesting that Tristan had picked both Sveta and me.  We were both mobile and Tristan wasn’t.  Ashley’s team had three people on foot.

Another reason for this particular location was Rain’s power.  It helped him keep his balance, and that was supposedly the extent of it.  When he arrived, I wanted to see if it factored in here.

Finally, there was the fact that it put us out of the way.  No bystanders, no property to damage.

Kenzie had her head down, her attention on her phone.  Ashley and Chris were both smiling.  All three were talking.  I waited a short bit for them to finish.

“I’m so unbelievably nervous,” Sveta said.

I glanced at her, and confirmed that Tristan had stepped away, rummaging in his bag.  He was out of earshot.

“I definitely hear you on that,” I said.

“I really want this exercise to work somehow, like Tristan said, but for different reasons.  The way you were brought in, you might have come in looking for the bad, and it’s… it’s not all bad.  Really.  I always wanted a team and the idea of finding one and fitting myself to that team with all of my problems, it seemed impossible or far away.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “You talked about it in the hospital.  That you’d talked to Mrs. Yamada and other people about how, putting aside all your issues, you wanted to be a hero.”

“And I wanted a boyfriend, and I wanted to be functional again, and I wanted friends,” she said, staring off at the other three.  “And I have almost all of it, but I feel like it could slip out of my grasp if things go wrong.  If this goes wrong.  I don’t know what I can do if that happens.  I’m worried this is going to be a disaster, and that’s making me so anxious.”

“What can I do?” I asked.  “I don’t want you to be unhappy.”

“Like I said before, I really want you to believe in us here.  I want you to give us a chance.  Even if this is bad to start.”

“Okay,” I said.

“And- I’m sorry if this is pushing a line or if you have reasons, but don’t be so stiff?”

She sounded so uncertain as she said it.  I drew in a deep breath and smiled at her.

“I’m the one with a prosthetic body.  We’re friends, right?”  She smiled, uncertain, and I smiled at her.  “So I don’t want you tense around me.”

“I’m nervous in my own way, and I think that’s how it shows,” I said.  “It’s not you.  Can I give you a bit of a hug, here, emotional support?”

“Please.”

I put one arm around her shoulders and squeezed.  Sveta moved her head in my direction, I moved mine in her direction, knocking heads with her a bit.

Off in the distance, even though she was more than a hundred feet away, I could hear Kenzie cooing and ‘aww’ing over the hug, as she looked at us.

“What did I miss?” Tristan asked.

“I’m anxious,” Sveta said.

“Me too,” Tristan said.  “Your control gets bad when you’re nervous, right?  You have more reflexive movements?”

“It gets so fucking shitty,” Sveta said.  “I’m sorry.  I’m worried I’ll be terrible because I’m all over the place inside here.  I don’t know if you can hear it, but I keep fumbling because I’ll reflexively reach out to grab something off in the distance and hit the wall of the suit instead, and then I have to reach for the right control ring again.”

“Do the best you can,” Tristan said.

“This isn’t about grading you as an individual,” I said.

“It’s about the team,” Sveta said.  “I don’t want to let the team down.  Can we start?  I’ll get more nervous if we wait.”

“Sure,” I said.

The other three weren’t wrapped up in their discussion anymore.  I called out, “You guys want your flag?”

“Here,” Sveta said.  She held out her hand.  I passed her the blue flag.

She passed it to the others, hand and forearm gripping the flag, tendrils pushing the hand and forearm.  She stopped short, relying on only the momentum so it only punched Chris lightly in the man-boob.  He caught her hand and arm in one large hand, plucking the flag free before releasing her hand.  He smiled as he held it up, then he reached low to hand it to Kenzie.  The two of them went to plant it, with Chris picking up a fallen tree on the way.

It seemed Chris and Kenzie got along better like this.

Ashley didn’t join them.  Instead, she started walking toward us, picking her way through weeds and grass.  She still had a partial smile on her face from before.

I flew to meet her partway.

“Ground rules?” she asked, when I was closer.

“Place your flag.  You grab ours and bring it to yours, or vice-versa.  Whoever has both flags at their starting point wins.  Try to avoid hurting the trees.  No personal injuries that aren’t going to heal in a day.  Bruises and scrapes are inevitable, but let’s avoid them if we can.”

“Understood.”  She turned to walk away, one hand raised to give me an over-the-shoulder salute as she did.

Tristan began altering the battlefield behind her, drawing out fifty little sparks to move along the surface of our side of the hill.

The other team was just on the other side of a trio of trees.  The nervousness we all felt was apparent as Kenzie’s cube lit up, making a deep beep sound.

All three faces of the cube that I could see had lit up.  Numbers were apparent.  ’10’…  ‘9’…  ‘8’…

“It’s worth remembering that she can remotely control the cube,” Tristan said.  “Hm.”

“Just the flashlight gun and the eyehook, right?” Sveta asked, giving Tristan a look.

Tristan moved his hand, and finalized his alteration to the slope between our fort and the halfway point of the battlefield.  Uneven ground, raised segments and lowered ones.  Most of it was flat, the spikes sticking out of the sides or toward the ground at an angle.  The material was solid, white with orange-red in the crevices, running through it like ore in rock.

The timer continued.  ‘3’…  ‘2’…  ‘1’…  ‘Go’.

They came out of the trees.  As Tristan had suggested, Ashley’s plan was to go on the attack.

All three of them.  Kenzie had changed, overalls gone, replaced with a skintight suit that mirrored her outfit in color and where it changed from black to pink to red.  Chris had his head turned, and he was using one hand to cram the last few feet of the dead tree into his mouth.

Ashley was on foot.  White eyes were wide open behind her mask, the pupils not visible from this distance.

“This is fine.  Same plan,” Tristan said, not sounding bothered in the least.

Two versus three, while Sveta grabs their flag.

Sveta reached for a tree and found her grip, hauling herself away.

Tristan began creating barricades and obstructions, aimed at being knee-height, to slow them down.

Ashley hurdled the first two.  Chris trampled his way through the three that had been put in his way.

Kenzie turned, aimed, and fired her flash gun in Sveta’s direction.  She missed, aimed again, and fired.  The second shot caught Sveta in its area.

“You take Chris and Kenzie, I’ll work on Ashley,” Tristan said.  He sounded confident.  “Keep an eye on Kenzie, make sure she doesn’t fall.”

I flew to intercept.  Chris had one hand full with the tree, mouth distended with a fat tongue sticking out, apparently to keep the tree from rubbing against his lower row of teeth; his hand served to protect the other teeth.

I was put in mind of the man I’d seen during the broken trigger, who’d had a tree come out the other direction.

Chris laughed, deep and booming, tree digested.  He lowered his chin, mouth closed, hands and arms up to protect his face and guard Kenzie.

I could deal with big and strong.  I flew closer- saw Kenzie turn, aiming her gun at me, and changed course, covering my face and head, my forcefield up.

Even turned partially away, my arms up, the momentary flash of light blinded me.  A full second passed, and my sight didn’t return.  I could hear Chris’ laugh, Kenzie’s amusement.  My forcefield hadn’t helped.

I felt the forcefield meet resistance, and I forced it to shut off before Chris’ hand could close around me.  I pushed out with my aura to try to throw him off balance and buy myself a second, and changed course.  I felt his fingers graze my back, dragging against cloth and not finding enough slack to get a grip.

Blindness was disorienting.  Blindness when flying made it hard to tell which way was up and which way was down, and I knew it would get worse before it got better.

I flew away and at the ground, forcefield up, and landed hard.  I felt Tristan’s creation shatter under and around me as my power absorbed the hit, fragments bouncing off of me, dust collecting on me.

“Are you okay!?” I heard Kenzie call out.

“I’m fine!” I replied.

“Don’t give away your position if you’ve blinded them!” I heard Ashley.

I heard a noise, and at first I thought it was Chris dismantling the fort.  It sounded like someone was tearing the world’s largest sheet of paper, nails on a blackboard, an alien’s scream from a science fiction movie that echoed far more than it should, a sharp explosion, and any number of other things, all overlapping and working against one another.

I opened my eyes and tried to make out the surroundings despite the spots of light that were exploding against the backs of my eyeballs.

Chris was large enough for me to make out his general shape.  I could make out Ashley and Tristan’s positions, but the only reason I could distinguish the two was because Ashley dressed in black and Tristan had more color to his costume.

Right.  I had a few tricks up my sleeve I’d been considering.  This was an opportunity to try one.

I took off, and I activated my forcefield momentarily as I did it, pushing out at the cracked chunks of stonelike ground, sending pieces rolling and sliding in the wake of my takeoff.  I needed their attention.  I saw Chris slow momentarily, mid-stride as he walked toward the fort.

I didn’t fly straight for them, but around, circling closer to the fort.  I paused, giving them time to see me, and then flew straight for Chris’ face, full speed.

I stopped only a few feet short, hitting him with my aura instead of my fist.  Full-strength, point-blank, a hit to the emotional rather than the physical.

The reaction was much the same as if I’d punched him.  Forward movement stopped, reversed, an off-balance stumble backward.

“Holy fuck,” I could hear Tristan.

I heard Damsel’s response, but I had other focuses than making out the words.  It might have been ‘pay attention to your opponent’ or ‘pay attention to who you’re fighting’.

I was busy flying around Chris, one hand extended so it maintained contact with him, let me gently push him, all while helping me to navigate while still partially blind.  Before he fully had his balance, I caught him by the shoulders and pulled him back and down toward the ground.

He walked backward rather than topple, helped by the fact that his head was small, his shoulders and neck narrow relative to his lower body.  It was part of why his center of balance was low to the ground, with his weight gathered around gut, butt, and legs.

Kenzie’s pincer-claw grabbed for my arm, then pulled my arm away from Chris.  I let it, grabbing the prehensile length of it between Kenzie and me.   Not a huge factor.  One hand still on Chris’ shoulder, I activated my forcefield, using the added strength to pull at Chris.  He continued his backward walk until he stumbled into one of Tristan’s sections of raised ground.

He toppled, and I shifted my position to guide his fall for the first half of the way.  The focus on the latter half of the way was letting my forcefield down and catching Kenzie.

Chris fell flat on his back.  Kenzie wriggled momentarily, and I deposited her on Chris’ chest, to make getting to his feet just a little bit harder.  The claw slipped free of my arm.

My vision was clearing enough for me to see vague expressions, without precise detail.  Chris was grinning, shaking with a laugh or chuckle.

“Come on, get up, get up!” Kenzie goaded him.

“Get off me then!” Chris boomed.

Orange motes were starting to surround them.

“Victoria!” Tristan called out.  “Switch with me!”

The words were barely out of his mouth when Ashley used her power again.  It was noisy to the point I worried my ears would be ringing an hour after this exercise.    I could see it as a visible blur of shadow aimed behind her and toward the ground.  She used the recoil to launch herself off to one side, to help her get around and past Tristan.  More orange motes appeared in the direction she was going.

She used her power again, changing course to fly straight for Tristan.  She planted one foot on his shoulder, stepped down so her back grazed against his, her long hair draping over his head and shoulders, aimed forward with both hands, and used her power a third time just as she touched ground, her back to his.

A power-augmented body-check.  The recoil of her power pushed her in the opposite direction she fired, but because she was in contact with Tristan, she pushed him too.  She stumbled, but he sprawled to the ground, his armor striking the hard platform he’d created on the slope, metal screeching and clashing against stone.

The orange motes that had started to appear around Chris and Kenzie came to life around them, an especially spiky, irregular outcropping with a thin ridge extending out to the growth he’d been making in front of Ashley’s original course, which became its own vaguely pineapple-shaped formation.

He’d wanted me to deal with Ashley.  Okay.  She was rolling her shoulders, rubbing at one, while she stalked toward the fort.

I could see better, so I could possibly pull this technique off better.  I flew at her, and she barely seemed to pay me any mind.

My feet touched ground, helping to stop me as I reversed my direction of flight to cancel out my forward movement.  I’d wanted to avoid all physical contact, but I did bump my shoulder into hers as I went from flying at near-top speed to a full stop, my face a couple of inches from hers, well inside her personal space.

As with Chris, I used my emotion aura.

As had been the case with Chris, the effect was immediate and profound.  She stumbled back much as if I’d flown into her and given her a strong shove, her eyes wide.

I’d barely found my own footing when she found hers.  Another blast, jarring for my ears.  My vision was already suffering, and it was made worse by the plume of dust and debris around and to one side of her.  She used the blast and a push of her legs to throw herself at the wall.

The moment she made contact with it, she used her power again, flinging herself out into empty space, hair and dress fluttering.

My first instinct was that she was going to have a rough landing, that I might need to catch her.  Before I’d even figured out how I might do it, she used her power once more.  She was aiming up at an angle, so that meant she was pushed down by the recoil.

It wasn’t a mere drop-kick or a fall, but a spearing plunge.  I did much as she’d done, pushing out with my legs in conjunction with a use of my power, my flight, to get out of her way.

With the speed and general profile of a pickaxe head driven into the ground, she landed on hard ground, in the same spot I’d been standing.  There was a second where she stood there, hair draping down, hands out at her sides with fingers splayed, and then one of her legs wobbled and she dropped to one knee.

“Are you-” I started.  I thought I saw her move and paused.  “Are you okay?  That landing looks like it hurt.”

She raised her face and looked up at me.  White eyes behind a black mask, behind white hair.

She used her power again.  Cords, columns, and shaped explosions of lensing, bending, and darkening within the roughly cone-shaped area, over the one or two seconds that she was creating each blast.  She didn’t even rise from her kneeling position.  She threw herself at me, and this time she caught me entirely off guard.  Her knees hit my shoulders, at least one of her arms caught me around the head, the fabric of her dress pulling against my face as she tried to fold herself around my head.

Holy shit, was my first thought.  She was not letting up.  Every time she acted, it was with the energy of a sprinter taking off from their starting position, except her power gave her more of a push, and the jarring noises only magnified the surprise of it.

My second thought was that she had seized my head.  She wanted to take me down to the ground, much as I’d toppled Chris.  There were two ways I could go.  To roll with the movement and use it, or to fight against it.

My instinct was to fight against it.  I used my flight, going up when she wanted to take me down.  I used my aura, which was more effective when people were close, and she was wrapped around my head.  I used my forcefield, only for one moment, while reaching up, putting my forearm against her ribs, and pried her off of me.

She used her power in the same instant she was pried off- fast enough that I was left with the feeling she had expected to use it while still holding onto me.  Her landing looked like a rough one, sprawling, one shin, one foot, one hand bracing against the ground as she skidded.

I saw her slowly clench and unclench her hands, rolling one shoulder.  She didn’t stand.

“Hoo,” I said.  My heart was pounding, and I fanned myself a bit with my hand.  “You do remember this is a training exercise, right?”

“You do realize my team is going to win this?” she retorted.  Her hands shifted position slightly.

Her face gave away nothing, I realized.  It didn’t help that with the dust, her hair across her face, and the last remaining spots of light in my vision, I couldn’t make out her pupils.  Her hands and where they were pointing were one of her tells.  Her shoulders another.  She was thin, but especially as she crouched there, hands slightly behind her and at her sides, shoulders pointing forward, I could see the muscles underneath the skin around her shoulder and shoulder blade.

Was there power or Manton protection there, keeping her from dislocating her shoulders when she used the recoil to move around like that?  Was it just strength and practice?

I’d relied on instinct to respond to her, and I didn’t love that I’d relied on that instinct.  I wanted to be careful and thoughtful about the moves I made and Ashley’s approach allowed absolutely none of that.  I was left to digest that I’d reacted to her by fighting, going the opposite direction instead of the Judo-like approach of using the enemy’s strength against them.

Was I okay with that?  If I had to rationalize my choice, I’d fought her because I could only use the enemy’s momentum against them if I knew which way they were going, and Ashley was hard to predict.

Well, just a bit less difficult now, as I stopped looking for more obvious tells.  She had stopped rolling her shoulder.  I saw the muscles tense.

“Victoria!”

The shout interrupted both of us, as she planned her next move and I readied my response.  It was Tristan calling.  Ashley and I both looked.

“Come and help!” he called out.

I flew back and away, out of Ashley’s reach, looking.

Chris, legs embedded in spiky rock, was using both hands to haul what looked like a long, thin rod out of his throat.  He’d swallowed the length of the dead tree like a sword-swallower swallowed a blade, and now he was drawing it back out, changed.

Narrower, thinner, smoother, and slick with fluids.

Chris, it seemed, wasn’t just the kind of changer who could adapt his form.  He was the kind of changer who gained new sorts of powers while in an alternate form.

He hauled the last of the tree free of his mouth.  Fifteen feet long, thicker at the end he had just removed than at the end he held, now that he was turning it around to get it in a position he could wield it.  Too long to be a proper club, not quite a rod either.

Kenzie had her flash gun out.  Tristan had thrown up a short wall, just tall and wide enough that he could hide behind it.  Kenzie’s eyehook extended from her belt, through one of her hands, and out to Tristan, with a grip on his leg.  She was simultaneously trying to circle around to get at an angle where she could shoot and blind Tristan and she was using the claw at the end of the prehensile arm to try and drag him out of the cover, helped by tugs with her hand.

Kenzie’s efforts left Chris entirely unmolested as he brought his weapon down, shattering Tristan’s created ground, freeing his legs.

“Leave her!” Tristan ordered.  “We’ll let her get the flag, deal with these two, and catch her on her return trip!”

I flew a little further away.

Sveta- I looked off in the direction of the enemy’s camp.

Little blue flags decorated the landscape on their side of the playing field.  They were situated on every rock, in every crevice, on every flat expanse of ground, on every tree branch.  Sveta was perched on a rock in the midst of it all.

I looked at Kenzie’s cube.  One face of it was glowing.  The projector.

That would be why they had been smiling, then.

I started my flight toward toward Tristan.

“You’ll regret ignoring me,” Ashley said, behind me.

Pride, respect, they were key factors here.  I could remember the meeting, the narrowing of the eyes.  I knew Tristan was in a tough spot, but I paused, turning around in the air.  I had to raise my voice to be heard with the distance between Ashley and me, as I said, “We’re not ignoring you.  We’re dealing with you two against one.”

I left her to limp toward the wall while I flew to Tristan’s side.  I landed beside Kenzie, hard, pushing out with my aura.

She twisted around, gun in hand, and I caught the gun, snatching it out of her hand.

“Hey,” she said.  She reached out with her hand, and I pulled the gun away.  She let go of Tristan and reached out for the gun with the eye-hook.  I grabbed the eye-hook, and then wrapped the length of the prehensile arm around her upper body, tying her up with it.

“Hey!” she said, again.  She laughed.  “Chris help!”

I didn’t need to ask, and I liked that I didn’t need to ask.  Orange motes began to surround Kenzie.

“No, no, no, no!” Kenzie said.  “Chris, Chris, Chris, Chris!”

The head of the long club was poked out between Kenzie and me, separating us.  Kenzie started to back away, and the orange motes became solid rock, encapsulating her legs.  Tristan lunged forward to catch her before her upper body came down and her head cracked down against his rocky terrain.

I flew up a little ways, putting myself between them and Chris.  Chris drew the fat end of the club back, and then smacked it against his palm.  He laughed, deep and low, and pointed at Kenzie.

“Stop laughing at me and help, you doofus!”

I had Kenzie’s gun in hand, I could have shot Chris, but I had my deep reservations about using a tinker’s stuff, even a nonlethal gun that temporarily blinded.

Ashley used her power.  I could hear the sound of it, and I saw the wall break.

“By the way,” Tristan said, looking in that direction.  “We’re not catching her on the return trip.”

He blurred, and with that blurring, the rock blurred too.  White with orange-red veins became clear water, reflecting the blue of the sky and the green of the trees above and grass below.  The front wall of the fort that Ashley had just penetrated and the platform that Kenzie and Chris were standing on became frothing water.

With the slope, that water flowed downhill, carrying Ashley and Kenzie down to the base of the hill, amid branches, mud, and sticks.  Ashley used her power at the start and toward the end, to little effect.

Chris brought his rod down, stabbing it deep into the ground, and held onto it for leverage.  It had to be sturdier than the dead tree had been, because it didn’t bend and it didn’t break.  Condensed down, maybe, shaped to be hard.

He reared back, and he blew.  He’d broken down and processed more of the dead tree than what he’d used to condense it into a giant club-staff.  He exhaled a cloud of wet sawdust.

I didn’t want to put up my forcefield if it would catch the sawdust, so I endured it, flew closer, and used my forcefield for only as long as it took to kick the stick he was holding onto with all of my strength.

It broke, and with it breaking, Chris fell down the hill, rolling over wet grass and weeds, until he came to a stop against a cluster of two trees that had grown next to one another.

He began to pick himself up, working his way up the hill, stabbing down to pierce the ground with his half-stick and plant it there like an ice-climber might use a piton.  The slope was just a little steeper at the base of the hill, and the water had become rock again, smooth and with the spikes all pointed downward, not good grips.

He swallowed hard, giving me a suspicion about what he was about to do.  He spat out a ball of wood pulp and phlegm, and I flew to one side, letting it sail past me.

I was put in mind of Crawler – the changer power, the spitting, the joyful monster.  Crawler had laughed too.

Crawler had critically injured me with his acid spit, and that had let Amy get her hands on me the second time.

It was a dark, unpleasant thought.

Tristan was focused on a point off to the side.  I turned to look, and I saw that he was creating orange motes around the projector box.

The motes solidified, and the box was encased in a thorny encasement of rock.

I turned to look, keeping one eye on Chris, and I saw the flags were still there.

“Nope!  That’s not going to work!  Good luck finding our flag!” Kenzie called out.  She loosed an over the top, mocking laugh.

Tristan turned the encasement to water.

“I said it was waterproofed before!  That’s not going to do anything!” Kenzie called out, before doing her level best to laugh harder, even though she had already been laughing at her limit.

“It doesn’t matter,” Tristan said, loud enough for them to hear.

Sveta made her way back in three moves, from the other team’s camp to a rock, rock to tree, tree to our camp.

She hauled herself up to the top of one of Tristan’s walls and she held up the two flags.

Ashley and Chris, who were making their way up the hill, stopped climbing.

“Yes!  Yes!  That was so great, that was fun, we have to do this again!”

From what Kenzie was saying, she didn’t seem to mind losing much.  She practically bounced with excitement.

Tristan created stairs on the slope.

Sveta joined Tristan and me as the others climbed the stairs.  Tristan put out one gauntlet, and she tapped her prosthetic hand against it.  I offered my own fist to her, and she tapped her fist against it, before wrapping her arms around me in a brief hug.

A stoic Ashley had Kenzie clinging to her as she reached the top.

“-were so cool, it was like how you were in the videos-”

“Ease up, Kenzie,” Tristan said.

Kenzie let go of Ashley, bouncing on the spot before reaching up to her lens-mask and pulling it off.  With the mask’s removal, her costume flickered in places, like an image that had been badly compressed, with heavy artifacting.

“This was everything I wanted it to be and more,” Kenzie said.  “I can’t believe you found the flag.”

“I-” Sveta started.

“Waitwaitwaitwait,” Kenzie said.  “Wait.  Um.  Okay.  I have this covered.”

“Okay,” Sveta said.

Kenzie pulled out her smartphone.

The projector made a sound, and then images streaked the hill, before correcting.  Ghostly images of all of us, life-size.  The images included the constructions Tristan had made.

It looked like where we had all been standing earlier in the match, when I had been facing down Ashley.

The images zipped around as Kenzie changed the time, blurring and streaking before correcting into their proper shapes.

“I saved everything, so we can look back and watch how things played out or compare notes,” Kenzie said.  “So we can do stuff like this…”

The images blurred and moved, then shifted, so the scenes that were projected no longer lined up on the battlefield.

It was Sveta, perched on a branch, flag in hand.  Another blur, moving the clock back.

Sveta removed one of her prosthetic hands.  Fifty or more tendrils snapped out.

“You grabbed every flag,” Tristan said.

“I grabbed at every flag,” Sveta said.  “I had to reposition a few times, so I probably grabbed at some fake ones several times.  It didn’t help that I couldn’t see that well after being shot.”

Kenzie cackled.  Chris smothered her cackling with a large hand.  Kenzie fought back, trying to get out from under Chris’ hand, and she did a pretty poor job of it.

It was weird and good to see her finally acting like an actual kid.  Too much excitement in her system, but that wasn’t a bad thing.

Once Kenzie had settled down more, we walked through the entire fight, focusing on each person.  Sveta was first, easy enough.

Tristan was next, and he made mention of the platform, and how he’d wanted to make sure nobody had footing when the rock turned to water, so he’d raised the ground some.  He had obviously plotted the trap from early on.

“Kenzie?  Do you want to report what you were doing?” Tristan asked, once he was done explaining what he’d done to Sveta.

“Wait,” Kenzie said.  “Rain’s here.  I’ll point the way.”

It took a couple of minutes before Rain and Kenzie’s camera-drone arrived at the base of the hill.

Chris was half the size he had been, and his proportions were returning to normal.  As he shrank, he rearranged the voluminous shorts he’d been wearing, ensuring his modesty was protected.  His old outfit was contained within a pocket on the inside of the shorts, and he gathered it together, folded up, the clothes piled on his lap, along with what looked like a pencil case.

Even though he was returning to the person he’d been, physically, his smile lingered.

“Rainnn!” Kenzie called out, while Rain was still making his way to us.  “Did you bring tinker stuff!?”

“Yeah!” Rain responded.

“Yusss,” Kenzie said.  “This is the best day.”

“You could have waited twenty seconds for Rain to show up and asked him in a normal volume,” Chris said.

“I wanted to know now.”

Chris groaned at her, putting his face closer to hers.

Kenzie groaned louder, exaggerated, putting her face closer to his.

Chris groaned even louder, guttural, using some of the residual transformation to play up the sound.  His forehead pressed against hers, hard enough she had to push back to avoid being pushed over.

Rather than try to top it, Kenzie sat back down.  “I like you when you’re like this.”

“Naked?” Chris asked.

No!” Kenzie said.  “Geez.”

“Why does it feel like every time I enter a conversation, it’s a weird topic?” Rain asked, joining us where we sat on Tristan-created seats and benches.

“I like you when you’re happy,” Kenzie said.  She fussed with her hair, looking down.  “I like you a lot like this.”

I was put in mind of her comments about Chris before she’d gotten in Erin’s car, after leaving the group meeting.  Like she didn’t have the worldly experience to know people didn’t say stuff like that in such an unguarded, dead obvious way.

“I still think you’re annoying as shit,” Chris said.

Sveta kicked him.

Kenzie snorted, smiling as she looked up at him.  “I know.”

“Nah.  I’m joking.  You’re fine.  I think we did pretty good.”

“I think we did too.  It would have worked except Tristan and Byron are strong and Victoria is oof and Sveta was the best counter to what we were doing.  We should fill Rain in.”

“That would be nice,” Rain said.  “It was you two and…”

He turned to look around the group, saw Ashley, and didn’t finish the sentence.

“And me,” Ashley said.

“Here, I can show you the replay,” Kenzie said.  “But I want to see your tinker arms too, before we run out of time.”

“There’s plenty of time,” Tristan said.

“Wait, here, you take the remote, and Rain, you can hand me the arm, I won’t break anything, I promise.”

Rain rummaged in his backpack, “I wouldn’t blame you if you did, it’s fragile and shitty.  You think it would help your eyehook?”

“It might!  But I’m really interested in the interface.  You like to have multiple arms, you said?”

“Yeah.  For what little it’s worth.”

“And you control it with your brain, once it’s plugged in?” Kenzie asked.  When Rain nodded, she asked, “How does the brain know how to control it?”

“I map the brain patterns for input and output and the panel here, between the attachment and the actual arm, it acts like an extension of the brain.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Sveta said.

Tristan was fiddling with the remote, and seemed to be having trouble with the progression of time, with images jumping all over the place.  Sveta, Kenzie, and Rain were all focused on the arm, with Ashley periodically joining in when prodded.

Chris was sitting on the bench, cloth around him as he shrunk down to a more ordinary size.  He was smiling more than before as he rummaged for his headphones and a chocolate bar.

“Your mood seems better,” I said to him.

The smile dropped away.  He looked at me and shrugged.  “It’s different.  I feel more human, mentally and emotionally.”

The change hadn’t seemed to make any difference in how he looked, either.  Were the changes subtle?

“I’m not sure I grasped it all,” I told him.  “Once you change, it’s…?”

I trailed off.

“It’s like a hit of a drug,” he said.  “Focus, surprise, sadness, appreciation, disgust, fear, anger, and then this one.”

“Joy?”

“I call this particular flavor of it Wan Indulgence,” he said.  He bit down on the chocolate bar, then closed his eyes, clearly enjoying it.  He talked with his mouth full, “Can be enjoyment.  I’ll feel it more normally for a few days now that I’ve changed.”

“Oh my god,” Kenzie said.  “Tristan, give that back, you suck at it.”

Tristan was still fiddling with Kenzie’s remote for the projector box.

“It doesn’t make any sense.  Why isn’t it easier to move forward and back in time?”

“Because the box doesn’t perceive time, you dummy.  It perceives images.”

“Why not have it perceive things like time, so you can go backward and forward in time without doing… whatever arcane thing you’re doing right now?”

“Because if it perceived time,” Kenzie said, patiently, her focus on the smartphone remote, “Then it wouldn’t perceive images.  And that would be a dumb thing for a projector box that works with images.  Dummy.”

“You can stop calling me a dummy now.”

“I will if you stop being dumb.  This stuff is obvious.”

“It’s really not,” Chris said.

Kenzie sighed, very dramatically.  “Who are we following next?”

“It’d be nice to show Rain the entire thing,” Tristan said.

“It works best with a point of view,” Kenzie said.  She looked at Tristan and rolled her eyes a little.

“If you keep that up, you’re going to see orange lights swirling over your head.  Then a rock is going to fall on you or, more likely, I’ll swap out and you’ll get a spray of cold water.”

Kenzie stuck out her tongue at Tristan.

I was aware that Ashley hadn’t participated enthusiastically in the conversation.  I suspected why.  I hesitated, then ventured, “I’d really like to see how Ashley approached things.”

“Why?” Ashley asked.

My suspicions were stronger.  I went on, “Frankly, I hope this isn’t taken the wrong way, but you’re really intimidating to go up against.”

“It’s fine,” she said.  “It’s the intention.”

“A big part of the reason I swapped out with Victoria is that I had no idea what to do,” Tristan said.  “I couldn’t catch you with my power, and you’re faster than me on foot.”

Kenzie was changing the perspective.  She created a projection of the hillside and shrank things down, then created more projections, showing an image off to one side of our gathering, showing a zoomed in portion of what the little diorama-sized projection was showing as a whole.  The focus started with the three emerging from the trees, trampling through and hurdling the barriers Tristan created.

She jumped to Tristan trying to deal with Ashley.

“Those blasts are as scary as shit,” Tristan said.  “Every time you used one, even if you were five feet away and you weren’t aiming at me, I was flinching.  I saw what it was doing to my powerstuff, and I did not want that to happen to my bodystuff.”

He’d realized what I was doing, and why, I realized.  Ashley was dejected at losing and we could give her a bit of a morale boost.  She seemed to like being scary.

I wasn’t wholly sure it was good to feed her ego on that front, but I wasn’t sure I liked the alternative, either.

“I have better control than that.  I’m not an idiot,” Ashley said.

“I’m not saying you are,” Tristan said.

“It’s obvious you have control,” I said.  “Kenzie, can you show the walljump?”

“There are two.”

“The one with me,” I said.

Kenzie jumped to the scene.  Ashley leaping off of the wall with one foot, her power just starting to explode out from her hands.  The power looked more solid in projection than it did in reality.

“For the record,” Kenzie said.  “If I was moving through this recording in time and not space, then I’d have to fast forward and rewind and skip around to find this, but I don’t, so I hope people are realizing why this is better.”

“I’m fully in support of dumping water on Kenzie’s head,” Chris said.

“The walljump,” I said.  “The sequences of blasts to maneuver and the whole-body coordination it must take.  That, to me, says control.”

“All for nothing,” she said.

“It was not for nothing,” I said.  “I got to see and experience what you do, I respect the spatial awareness.  The instinct-”

“I fell for a trap,” she said.  “I knew there would be water and I thought I could avoid it if I used my power in time, I didn’t expect there to be so much.”

“We’ve never seen each other’s powers in action,” Tristan said.  “Surprises are inevitable.  You surprised the shit out of me, many times, and I got one good surprise off.  When we do it again, we’ll know each other’s powers better.  It’s part of why we’re doing the exercises in the first place.”

“I failed,” Ashley said.  She stood up, and she rubbed one shoulder.  “I was tested and I failed.”

“Right from the start,” Sveta said, jumping into the conversation  “When we were standing around figuring out what we’d do, Victoria told me that this wasn’t a test of us as individuals.  It’s a test of our coordination as a team.”

“I can find that on the recording,” Kenzie said.  “It’ll be hard to find, though.”

“Hah,” Chris said.  Kenzie pushed his shoulder.

“My team failed,” Ashley said, oblivious to the pair.  “No.  My team was set up to fail.”

“Wait, woah,” Tristan said.

Ashley clenched one hand into a fist.  “You realize if I hadn’t been holding back, I could have annihilated each and every one of you?”

Woah,” Tristan said, with emphasis.  “Ashley-”

She whirled on him, pointing, and he flinched, going silent.  I stood from my seat.

“Ashley,” I said, because I wanted her attention off of Tristan.

“I’m not Ashley,” she said, her voice hard.  “Nobody has called me that in a long, long time.  I’m only Ashley because the therapists insisted and the others needed an actual name to put on the paperwork.  I’m Damsel of Distress!

“Okay,” I said.  “Can we-”

I was spoken over.  “I was a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine.  They selected me.  They had me kill and maim people.  I didn’t mind doing it then, and I could do it here without blinking.”

“I don’t believe you,” Sveta said.

“I’ve died and I came back with only the vicious parts of me intact!  All of the warmth, the good memories, the family, they’re just a fuzzy, indistinct dream.  Those memories have no hold on me.  The killing?  Taking people’s arms and legs and watching them bleed out?  That’s clear as anything.  I could do the same to any of you.”

I wanted the younger and more vulnerable members of the team to back away, to get clear of trouble, but I worried that if I tried to indicate that, it might provoke her.  Everyone was still, and nobody, myself included, was really breathing.

“This was an idiotic game, and I.  Don’t.  Play.  Games.”

“Count down from ten,” Rain said.

Ashley whirled on him.  I left the ground, flying closer, stopping when things didn’t escalate further.

“Count down from ten,” Rain said.  “That’s what Mrs. Yamada says, isn’t it?  When you’re wound up.”

“It’s fine when she says it.”

“It should be fine when any of us say it,” Rain said.  “Count.”

Ashley tensed.  I could see it in her shoulders and the way the tendons stood out in her hands.

Everyone was silent.

I waited.  Ten seconds passed.  Then the fifteenth, then the twentieth.

“Feel better?” Sveta ventured.

Ashley turned, staring Sveta down.  “No.”

“Count down from a hundred,” Rain said.

“I’m not going to-”

“Count,” Rain said, his voice soft.  “Please.  You’ve said before, when you get like this, there’s a part of you that’s saying you don’t want to act this way, and you can’t listen to it.  So listen to the numbers first, then listen to that part of you.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“It’s-”

“It’s not that easy,” she said.  “And I’m going to walk away.  You do your thing.  Let me do mine.”

“Okay,” Rain said.

She limped away, hands in fists at her side.  We were silent as we watched her go.

She walked up the hill, found a rock, and leaned against it, her back to us, and I let my feet touch ground.

“We knew it was coming sooner or later,” Chris said.

“Spooky,” Sveta said.”I expected a small outburst to start with.  That was-”

“Medium-small,” Tristan said.

Kenzie stood up, gathering her things.

“Stay, Kenzie,” Sveta said.

“It’s fine.”

“She wants to be left alone.”

“This thing?” Kenzie asked.  “It’s not you guys being the adults and me as the kid, listening to what adults say.  We’re all equal members of this team.  And this is what I’m going to do, and if I get hurt that’s fine, but this is right for me.  You can tell me what to do with some other stuff but not this stuff.”

“It’s dangerous,” I said.  “Leave her be.”

“No,” Kenzie said, voice firm.  She put her hand on her flash gun.  She looked at all of us, then said, softer, “No.”

“Okay, Kenzie,” Sveta said.  “Go.  Be careful.”

“You’re sure?” Tristan asked Sveta.

But Kenzie was already jogging off in Ashley’s direction.

When Kenzie was out of earshot, but before she had reached Ashley, Sveta raised one hand and said, voice quiet, “If there’s a problem, I’ll haul her back.”

“That takes a second or two,” I said.  “Sparring with Ashley, I gotta say she moves faster than that.”

“And your grip isn’t a hundred percent,” Tristan said.

Sveta set her jaw, hand pointed at Kenzie.

Kenzie reached Ashley, and with Ashley’s movement, we all tensed, preparing to act.

Ashley turned back to look out at the distance, and Kenzie climbed up on the rock Ashley was leaning against.

A moment later, Kenzie had her headphones out of a pocket.  She plugged it into her phone, reached down, and put an earbud in Ashley’s ear, then put another in her ear, before lying down on the rock.

Slowly, Sveta lowered her hand.

“Why?” I asked.

“I gave my reasons before, so did Rain, so did Kenzie,” Sveta said.  “We’ve had this discussion.  This isn’t news.”

“It’s one thing to know it and see it in therapy, it’s another to experience it in the wild,” Rain said.

“Why?” I asked, again.  “You can’t- I understand reaching out to people, but can you really reach out to people who aren’t reaching back?  Can you give forgiveness and understanding to someone who isn’t looking for it?”

“I think she is,” Sveta said.

Tristan said, “I don’t know what you guys talked about, but I discussed this with the others, and I have an idea what they probably said.  Do you know how many appointments and meetings she goes to?”

“It came up,” Rain said.

“Okay, good.  But did you talk about why?

“Because she needs careful handling?” I asked.

“Because,” Tristan said, “She’s a special case.  She’s not the original Ashley, I’m not sure if you picked up on that.”

“I got the gist of it.”

“Like she said, her memories aren’t hers.  She was cloned, they took her and they made up composite memories, but they had no reason to give her those fuzzy memories of other, nonconfrontational stuff.  That wasn’t Bonesaw’s work.  It’s the agent.”

I drew in a breath and I sighed.

“The world ended, and it ended because of them.  We can’t have a sit-down talk with Scion because we killed him.  We have a shitton of questions and the only kinds of people who can answer them are the people who got really close to the agents, like Bonesaw, who made Ashley-”

I felt a chill.

“-and the people like this.  Who are very little of the human, shadows of the human, and a lot of the agent.  All of us have problems, and a big part of those problems are the agents, handling their side of things.  I know I’ve talked to Rain about this, I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but when I’m talking to her I’m also talking to the agent that’s very close to the surface.  I feel like if I can get along with that agent, I can get along with mine.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.

“I want to get along with the human,” Sveta said.  “I don’t want to define her as the monstrous half.”

“That’s fair too,” Tristan said.

I folded my arms.  I looked down at Chris, and I saw that he was half-asleep.

He saw me looking, and he said, “The world was invaded by aliens.  People don’t know it, we don’t like to think about it, but they’re here, they’re a part of things.  Getting along with the most accessible of them makes sense.”

I didn’t like it, but I wasn’t sure how to articulate it.  My own agent had a hand in my life.  It was the wretch, the sapience behind the forcefield.  I had seen what Amy’s had done to her.

Thinking too hard about it stirred up countless ugly feelings, and those feelings choked out and clouded the words I wanted to articulate.

“Let’s leave them be,” Rain said.  “Let’s assume we’re not going to have our second exercise, and walk me through how things went.”

“Alright,” Tristan said.

As the discussion continued, I didn’t take my eyes off the pair in the distance.

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Glare – 3.2

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“Hey, Victoria, you’re strong right?” Kenzie asked.

“Kind of,” I said.  “I’d be worried about breaking whatever it is I’m handling.”

“It’s pretty durable.”

I thought about my forcefield.  “I totaled the last car I lifted.”

“I brought things, and I thought maybe Chris could lift some or Tristan could, but Tristan doesn’t think he’s strong enough and Chris doesn’t want to.”

She turned stick out her tongue at Chris.

“Limited duration,” Chris said.

“I can take a look, where is this?” I asked Kenzie.

“At the street.  Black van.  I’ll show you.”

“Yeah, that’d help.  I’ll probably have questions.”

I turned to the others, pointing at the treeline.  “If you guys want to head over that way, stop at the rocky outcropping on the hill.  We’ll meet you there.”

Kenzie walked with me.  She was wearing black overalls and a pink tank top, a red apple clip in her hair, and red sneakers.  Her hair was in much the same style as before, but the buns were set higher.

I paid more attention to her fashion choice because so much about it seemed deliberate, from color scheme to running theme.  During the last meeting it had been a star on her dress, partially on her shirt, and in her hair.

“My dad gave me a ride today, because he needs to buy a suit and more work clothes,” Kenzie said.  “Please don’t judge me too harshly if he acts really lame.”

“I won’t,” I said.  “You said Tristan and Chris could have helped.  Tristan has increased strength?”

“Just a little.  Very very little.”

“I guess we’ll find out soon.”

“Sveta could have helped too, we think, she’s really strong if she uses her real body, but it would have meant dragging it and that would have hurt the grass.”

“How big is this thing?”

“I’ll show you,” she said.  She sprinted the last little way to the sleek van that was parked on the street in front of the library, hopping up to the passenger side window, clinging to the bottom edge of the open window so she could stick her head in.  The back door of the van popped open, and Kenzie’s father stepped out, walking around the van to the sidewalk.

He was almost as meticulous in appearance as Kenzie.  He was very lean, with pronounced cheekbones and a long face that was made to look longer by the goatee that extended an inch from his chin.  He wore a short-sleeved work shirt with a pinstripe pattern on it, and slim jeans that looked like they had cost a pretty penny.  Shoes, belt, and watch, all expensive-looking.

The beard and his longer hair weren’t as tidy as Kenzie was, but I was hardly about to judge, given how it was probably a day off for him and he was sitting in the sun.

“Dad, this is Victoria.  She’s the coach I was talking about.  Victoria, this is my dad.”

“Hi, Mr…”  I extended a hand.

“Julien Martin,” he said.  He shook my hand.  Both handshake and his tone were stiff, but it was a different kind of stiffness than I was used to seeing in Dean’s family.  I was well aware of how easily I’d slotted him onto that same mental shelf.

“You can call him Julien,” Kenzie said.

“Nice to meet you.  What do you do?”

“Realty.”

“Dad only got into realty a year and a half ago, but he’s really good at both the buying and selling sides of things.  I don’t really get it all, but his boss seemed pretty happy with him.  You got a promotion, right?”

“I did.”

“He’s doing it ethically, too, which is so important, with so many shady people out there.”

“I’m trying,” he said.

“I can respect that,” I said.  “Thanks for bringing Kenzie out this far, and for bringing her stuff.”

Kenzie rolled her eyes.  “We should go take a look so we don’t keep the others waiting.”

Julien followed us around to the back of the van, standing back while we opened the doors.  A black box that was a bit larger than a washing machine was sitting in there, strapped down ten ways from Sunday, to keep it from sliding around when the vehicle moved.  More boxes were sitting at either side of the van, with straps to keep them flush against the wall, but they weren’t any larger than a backpack or suitcase.

“We got the van because some of my stuff is hard to move,” Kenzie said.

“Okay,” I said.  The box had a metal frame around the edges, with a crossbar running diagonally along each face.  “What do I need to know?”

“Pick it up and move it.”

“It’s tinkertech, right?”

“It is.”

“Is there a chance of a misfire if it’s moved in the wrong way, if something’s crushed or broken?”

“No.”

“Will I hurt anything if it’s turned on its side?”

“No,” Kenzie said.  “Hm.  It’s best if you don’t turn it upside down.”

“Where should I grab it, to best carry it?”

“Geeez,” Kenzie said.  “It’s not going to blow up or anything.  Or if it did, it wouldn’t be a big enough explosion to hurt anyone.  Not unless very specific conditions were met.”

“Right,” I said.  I had an issue with my power, where I wasn’t sure I trusted the forcefield to simply hold the box and not crush or dig into it.  It was only about a minute of flying to get to where I wanted to go, but even if everything went according to plan, I was worried that handling the box for more than a couple of seconds would leave handprints or gouges in it.

While I investigated, Kenzie climbed in beside me, peering at the box and watching me.

“Give me some space?” I asked.

Kenzie grabbed some smaller things on her way out.

It took a few minutes, but I unclipped the straps that were securing the box in place, and laid them across the ground.  I lifted the box, and set it down on the straps.  I connected them, wrapping them around the box, then slid it around so I could reach the ones at the back.  There was a ramp built into the truck, and I could see where the box could slide along the tracks, but it seemed like more of a hassle to use the ramp and unload that way.

“How dangerous is this team business going to be?” Julien asked, behind me.

“Dad,” Kenzie protested.  “Don’t embarrass me.”

“If I thought it was going to be a serious danger, I wouldn’t be helping,” I said, still working on the straps.  “But I can’t guarantee anything.”

I fastened the straps, then hauled the entire thing out, forcefield up, gripping the box.  It thudded against the street.  Dense.

“Is it a problem?” I asked Julien.

“It’s not a problem,” Kenzie said, firm.  “I can handle myself.  I’ve trained more than a lot of heroes, because I did a year going to all the practice events and stuff.”

“I’m more interested in what your dad has to say.  I don’t want to step on toes, and your parents get the last word.”

“It’s fine,” Julien said.  “If it wasn’t this, she would be doing something else.  I prefer this team idea.”

“You should,” Kenzie huffed.

“Do you need to be picked up?”

“Yes, please.  In…?” Kenzie looked at me.

“Two hours?” I asked.  “Is that okay?”

“It’s fine,” her dad said.  He still had that tone, which came across curt, inflexible.  I had a hard time imagining him as a salesman.  Accountant, maybe.

“Before you do anything, can you go to the train station?  Rain had to take the train and he’s running late.  Bring him here?” Kenzie asked.

Her dad frowned.

“Please,” Kenzie said.

“Where am I going?” he asked.

“Give me your phone, I’ll put it in there.”

While they fussed, I checked and fixed the remainder of the straps.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.

The straps served to let me hold the box without actually holding it.  I flew, holding the length of straps that I’d wound together and attached at the tail end.  The box made for unwieldy flying, swinging below me.

Could the forcefield potentially claw through them?  Yes.  I hoped I’d be able to see it before it managed to succeed.

I flew in the direction I’d sent the others, leaving Kenzie behind.

My phantom self gripped the length of straps, scratched, squeezed, and twisted it, periodically making the ten foot length of cords bend in unusual shapes.

I hadn’t interacted with it much.  I hadn’t seen the limits of its intelligence or lack thereof.  This one minute of flying might have even been the longest period I’d properly used my strength in two years.

I sighted the others, sitting on the rocks and talking.  I dropped low, and I set the box down on the ground.  Even with the care I was taking, it made a noise on landing.

“Wow,” Tristan said.  “How heavy is that thing?”

“No idea,” I said.  “If I had to guess, maybe three hundred and fifty pounds?”

“I can see why she has a hard time moving those things around.”

“She described them as being bigger,” Chris said.  “Others, I think.  I think they start at that size and get larger.”

“Did her dad leave?” Sveta asked.

“Not yet,” I said.  “They’re figuring out logistics.  He’s going to go pick up Rain at the station.  Be right back.”

I flew over to where Kenzie and her dad were.  Kenzie’s dad was in the driver’s seat, and Kenzie was closing the rear doors.  A series of bags and boxes were unloaded, all packed together.

As I landed, her dad pulled away.  Kenzie raised a hand in a wave.

I was aware of the lack of a wave in response.  From the way she lowered her hand and glanced at me, Kenzie was too.

“Want to fly over?” I asked.

Her eyes lit up with excitement as she nodded.

There were very few people in the world who didn’t like flying.

It was, in a way, almost as much of a pain to bring Kenzie, two cases and two boxes without my strength active, as it had been to move the one cube.  I ended up lifting her by the straps at the back of her overalls, my hand also wrapped around the strap of one bag, while Kenzie held other things.

We arrived at the hill with the rocks.  There was light overgrowth, a fairly loose distribution of trees for the fact that it was untamed wilderness, and thick grass.  A surveying team had passed through at one point, and they had disturbed earth here and there, felled a few trees, and spray painted the face of one of the larger rocks before leaving.

A bit of a shame, but I could understand the need for a quick and easy label.  No minerals or stone of any particular value here.

Chris, wearing his headphones again, was wearing what looked like the same shorts as he had worn at the meeting, and a different t-shirt.  He was examining the box, while keeping at least two feet away from it at all times.  He had a bag with him, a travelers’ backpack that was packed full, but he’d put it down.

“You don’t have to keep your distance,” Kenzie said.  “It’s not dangerous.”

“It’s tinkertech.  It’s science that gets at least some of its functionality from interdimensional fuckery, built by cooperation between you and the unfathomable, menacing thing that chose you as its host.”

“It’s a camera, Chris.  It records and projects.”

“It’s a camera built with collaboration between you and a unknowable, violence-driven multiversal horror.”

“My multiversal horror is pretty tame, I think.  She just likes to build things and gather information,”  Kenzie pressed buttons on the side of the box.  A triangle between reinforcing bars lit up.

A hologram appeared a number of feet away.  A potbellied rat with a crooked nose.

“…And you’re using it to make cartoons,” Chris said.

“Plump Rat King,” Sveta said.  “Some of the kids at the hospital liked that one.”

“It’s okay,” Kenzie said.  “Only the first season was really any good.”

“What’s it good for?” Ashley asked.  She was taking things a step further than Chris’ wearing of the same shorts.  She wore the same dress she had worn at the meeting, the damage at the corner mended imperfectly.  One of the straps, I realized, had been damaged and patched, but her hair masked much of it.  She had a black mask in her hand, but she hadn’t put it on.

“Stuff.  Loads of stuff.  I’ll show you some later,” Kenzie said.  She started opening boxes.

Tristan, much like Kenzie, was unpacking a bag.  His costume was armor.  It struck a balance between function and appearance, but it looked like it was a pretty good quality.  Each segment was framed with goat’s heads and horns, spirals and ridges.  Where it wasn’t brushed metal, things were painted or tinted red or light red.  He saw me looking and smiled.

“Byron is the fish theme, then?” I asked.

“Water as much as fish.  Yeah,” Tristan said.

“You have some kind of superstrength, right?”

“A very small amount.  Helps when you’re wearing armor as heavy as this, or when you’re using a power that can make heavy things.”

“Seems like a good place to get us started,” I said.

Tristan turned around, seating himself firmly on the sloped ground, his armor partially unpacked and arranged beside him.  Some bits were already fastened into place on his arms and legs, over a bodysuit that seemed designed to go between him and his armor.

He held up his hand, and produced three motes of orange-red light.  As each one moved through the air, it left a trail behind it, like the afterimage of a sparkler waved through the darkness.  They traced a circle and as the moving points of light connected to the end of each trail, a shape came to life.  A discus, with a slight peak on one side.

I extended a hand, and he passed it to me.

Dense, heavy, very solid.  Matter creation.

“You can throw it,” he said.

I threw it.  It wasn’t as aerodynamic as a frisbee, but it did catch the air.  It wobbled mid-flight and veered off course, crashing into a tree before disappearing into a patch of grass.

Tristan was already making something else.  Twelve or more motes of light traced the shape.  “Requires a bit of concentration, I can rush it or force it to come into being early, but you get weirdness like… this.”

It materialized.  A hammer or a mace, long-handled.  The weirdness was in how the shape finalized its form, drawing pretty creative curves and hooks.  Spikes, horns, thorns, and other slightly curved growths stood out.  It looked unbalanced.

“Are they permanent?” I asked.

“They can be.  Depends if I keep the sparks alive or not.  I can create a lot of sparks, but it requires more time, more concentration.”

“What’s the difference between keeping it alive or not?” I asked.

“Ah,” he said.  He pushed himself to his feet, shifting his footing to make sure he wouldn’t slide down the hill.  He held out the mace, and started to form the motes for another.  He rushed this one even more than he had the last.  The shape was more unwieldy, less balanced.  “Byron, you want to help with demonstrations today, or do you want to be left alone?”

Tristan blurred, features distorting, his eyes flaring with the same light as the sparks had.  The light turned blue, and then he was Byron, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans.

One of the two maces exploded into a spray of water.  Sveta made a noise of surprise, and Chris, still mostly fixated on examining Kenzie’s cube, jumped back from the cube in surprise.

Byron turned his head so the backspray hit him in the side of the face, rather than right in the center of it.  He dropped the still-intact mace he held with his other hand.

“Hi Byron,” Kenzie said.

“Hi,” I added my greeting to Kenzie’s.  “We haven’t formally met.”

“We haven’t.  I got the basics,” he said.

“So I gathered.”

“This is a terrible idea,” he said.  “Tristan being involved, this team concept, the potential for disaster, and this thing with Tattletale?”

“I don’t see anyone changing their mind.  Mrs. Yamada couldn’t convince them, I don’t think I can.  If they’re going to do this or something like this, isn’t it better that they do it smart and informed?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “But if you’re enabling them, you should know you own a share of what happens.”

“I don’t think that’s fair,” Sveta said.

“It might be fair,” I said.

“My voice doesn’t matter either.  I tried, nobody listens.  Maybe I own a bit of what happens for not trying harder to stop Tristan from going forward with this.”

“You sound pretty certain something bad is going to happen.”

“I was there for all the therapy sessions, even if I didn’t participate,” he said.  He looked at the others.  “Don’t worry, I’m not going to say anything.  But I am going to say, again, this is a trainwreck waiting to happen.”

“We got it,” Chris said.  “Saying it over and over doesn’t change anything.”

“Be kind, Chris,” Sveta said.  “There’s a lot playing into Byron’s concerns.”

Byron shook his head.  He glanced at me.

“You need anything, while we’re talking?” I asked.

He shook his head.  “No.  Um.  You seem alright, so… be safe.  Be wary.  And for the record, since you’re going to ask…”

He showed me his power.  Motes of light, like Tristan’s, blue.  He drew them in the air, two expanding, abstract shapes, not closed like Tristan’s had been.  He positioned them so there was one on either side of him, then clenched his fist.  The lines that were drawn became water, buckets worth, spraying out in the direction the lines had been drawn.  He had drawn them out as expanding spirals, and the resulting water flew out in circular sprays.

“You can use me if you need to clean up, Tristan,” Byron said.  “I’ll do the quick swaps if you need them.”

The water was still spraying when Byron blurred, features distorting and smearing together, the two lighted eyes peering through the shadows between folds and smears, going from blue to orange-red.

One of the sprays of water lost all of its oomph, the remaining water striking the ground to flow through grass and between rocks.  The other diagram became a solid object, a wheel spikier and cruder than what Tristan had made.  It hit the ground and stuck there.

The water that Byron’s power had produced rained down on us for several seconds.

“It’s not going to hurt the box?” Chris asked.

“Nope,” Kenzie said.  “Waterproofed just in case Byron visited.  It was good to see you, Byron, by the way.  I hope to prove you wrong.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “That’s a good way of putting it, Kenzie.”

Tristan’s face was at an angle that saw him looking down at the ground.  At first I thought he was trying to keep the water out of his face.  Then, as he changed the angle of his head a little, I saw his face.

“For the record,” Tristan said, “If it’s my two hours and I ask you a question and then pass the baton, I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t take up extra time and use it to try and sabotage me.”

“I did say hi to him,” I said.

Tristan shrugged.  “He didn’t have to say all that.  He’s quick to say there’s a problem but he doesn’t suggest alternatives.  He whines about the circumstances but he won’t attend the therapy and he doesn’t want to work on figuring out better courses of action.  It pisses me off sometimes, especially when he elbows into my time to make what I’m trying to accomplish harder.”

His tone was hard.  Pissed off seemed like an apt description.  I’d seen Tristan, casual and smiling some before he’d changed, and now this felt like a complete, sudden shift.

It was easy to forget that he was in there while Byron was out here, feeling things, thinking, his mood changing during that short conversation.

I could see the expressions of others.  The sympathy on Sveta’s face, the tilt of Chris’ head.

Ashley looked especially focused and attentive, her pacing around the hill having come to a stop.  One of her hands was at her hair, pushing it back out of her face, the water helping it stay there.

“It seems like hard feelings are inevitable,” I said.

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  He looked away.  “I can keep my shapes ‘alive’.  If they’re still alive when I change, they become water.  If they aren’t, they’re there to stay.  Same for Byron’s water.  It’s effective if he makes water, sloshes it over someone, and then changes, to make it solid.  We’ve tagged a good dozen villains that way.”

“A dozen is a really good number for a teenage hero.”

“Yeah,” Tristan said.

“You’re pretty lucky, getting a name that fitting for a power like that.”

“Constellations forming rock and water?” Tristan asked.  He snorted air through his nostrils.  “Want to know the hilarious thing?”

“I do,” I said.  I wasn’t sure whatever he was going to say was ‘hilarious’, given his tone, but I’d hoped today would be a lighter endeavor, and any humor would help.

“We weren’t even rock and water, originally.  Reach bought the name from the last Capricorn.  She got wounded in battle and she retired.  Win-win.  We got settled into the role, got our name, our armor, our brand, and… power changed to match.”

“That’s really interesting,” I said.  “There’s a lot of potential there.”

“There is.  Absolutely.  And not all of it’s good,” Tristan said.

“But some of it is,” Sveta said.

“Some of it is, yeah,” Tristan said.  He offered her a small smile.

I could see the concerted effort he was making to pull out of the funk.  A few words from his brother and he was upset enough that it showed in his tone and the direction of what he was talking about.

Tricky, that kind of negativity sitting just under the surface.

“Sveta,” I said.  Change of topic.  “I’m guessing you’ve worked on control enough that you feel okay letting loose in limited ways?”

“Kind of,” she said.  “I don’t want to go all-out in a combat situation.  I don’t want to do anything that would risk people getting hurt.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I figured I would mostly stay in the suit.  I can do this…”

She didn’t touch or move anything external, but the joints of her elbow shifted, and the forearm and hand dropped.  Ten or so tendrils extended between elbow and forearm, like a muscle with gaps between strands.

She moved it, tendrils bending, flinging her hand and the attached segment of arm out fifty feet.  She tried to grab a branch, missed it, grabbed another, and seized it, before pulling her body to follow.  I saw her turn her head away as she pulled herself through the intervening twigs and leaves.

She twisted around, pointed a hand, and used tendrils to push her fist out.

She seized the wheel that Byron had left embedded in the earth, and pulled herself to it.

There was a bit of gracelessness to the landing, her pants leg and the side of her body rubbing against the grass, a few clumps of earth flying, but it served to put her in our midst again.  She wobbled as she stood and Tristan and I caught her between us.

She made a small ‘phew’ sound.

“You’re made of grappling hooks, basically,” Chris said.  Kenzie, sitting on her box, stuck out her toe to jab Chris in the shoulder.

“I can get things for my body.  Weld and I were talking about getting a second body for cape things.  If I had hooks I could unfold I could more reliably grab things.  And I’ll get better with practice,” Sveta said.  “And I really want extra shielding for my joints because they’re the easiest part to break, and I don’t want to have to send it out to be repaired and be unable to walk or do things in the meantime.”

“What happens if the suit gets broken?” I asked.  “As in broken enough that it doesn’t keep you contained?”

“Um.  I have a collapsed hamster ball in here.  I can spit it out, unfold it, shove myself in there and bring the lid behind me.  It’s a bit cramped, it’s not the biggest, and it might not always work, but I’ve also been working hard at keeping myself under control.”

I suppressed a wince.  Sveta had worked hard for as long as I’d known her, and I knew that the anxiety was tied into the lack of control in a feedback loop, and that her being so much more confident and happy would mean she had more control, but all it took was one bad incident.

“Workable,” I said.  “We’d have to be really, really careful.”

“Absolutely,” she said, with dead seriousness.  “The way I see it, my body is pretty hardy.  To break containment, it would take something that would maim an ordinary person.”

“Yeah,” I said.  But if they think you’re durable, they might not hold back.

We’d address that when it came to it.

“Alright,” I said.  “So, my line of thinking was that instead of explaining, we’d do a little bit of a team exercise.”

I heard a faint groan from Chris.

“It should be fun, and it should be relatively low-key,” I said.  “We split everyone into teams of three, and we play a small game of capture the flag, here.”

“See, that’s playing dirty,” Tristan said.  “You’re playing into my love for competition, here.”

“It’s fun,” Kenzie said.  “I really like this.”

It seemed Kenzie could be counted on to be positive.  I said, “I’m hoping it’s fun.  Does anyone else need to explain their powers or cover anything before we get into it?  I know what Ashley can do, unless something’s changed.”

Ashley shook her head.

“We’ll see you in action when we have our competition, then.  That leaves Chris and Kenzie, kind of.”

“I’ve got some things,” Kenzie said.  She opened a case.  “Two of these things I had as just-in-case things when I was a Ward.  I got them fixed up recently, and I even made an improvement.  Eye hook-”

She pulled out a coil of metal.  She stuck it on the corner of her cube, then held her phone in one hand, moving her thumb around.  The coil unfurled, prehensile, and its tip unfolded from its teardrop shape.  Three claws, extending from around a circular lens with a pupil.  Kenzie moved her head and body in time with the movements of the thing.

The thing moved closer to me, until it was two feet from my face, the three claw-blades opening and closing a little.  It blinked at me, shutter closing momentarily.

“It was made to look through vents, to start with.  it’s delicate enough it can turn screws and drill holes, and I can swap out the lens for others.  And I’ve got this flash gun too.”

She held up something that looked like a child’s toy, squat, blunt, with a lens on the front.

“It’s for when I had to get closer to the scene when I was with the Baltimore Wards.  They wanted me to be able to protect myself and they wanted nonlethal.”

“What does it do?” I asked.

“Makes light,” she said.  She aimed it off to the side and pulled the trigger.

It looked and sounded like a camera flash going off.

“And the other stuff?”

“Mask with a few settings,” Kenzie said.  She pulled out a high-tech mask, metal around the edges to give a general circular shape to the clear pane for her face, but she didn’t put it on.  She held up a disc, then clipped it to the front of her overalls, so it was directly over the pocket at her chest.  “This is kind of a costume thing I haven’t finalized.”

“Good,” I said.  “Great.”

“I transform,” Chris said.  “Changer.”

I made a motion for him to continue.

He sounded aggrieved, like it was my fault he had to explain at all, “I don’t know what else you want.  I have a few different forms.  They’re inspired by my moods and mental states.”

“You give them names based on what mood or state they’re from,” Kenzie said.  “Like Creeping Anxiety and Wistful Distraction.”

“Yeah,” Chris said.  “Look, the rest of you know.  Explain.  I’m going to go change.”

He grabbed his bag and hefted it over one shoulder, then began trudging uphill.

“These forms reflect the feelings?” I asked.

“Very much so,” Sveta said.

“It sounds like he has more than a few forms,” I said.

“Eight or more, as far as I’ve counted,” Kenzie said.  “He said a few, but I think he loses track.  There’s wiggle room in each form, too.  It depends on a lot of factors.  Diet, time since he last used a form, if he pushes for something in the middle.”

“He’s strong,” Ashley said.

“He might be,” Tristan said.

Kenzie continued to volunteer information.  “The forms tend to come with pretty heavy weakness.  Anxiety is quick but fragile.  That sort of thing.”

“I think I get it,” I said.  “Can I ask why he’s in the group?”

“The drawbacks,” Tristan said.

“The fragility isn’t a drawback?” I asked.

“It’s one.  He doesn’t change all the way back.”

“What?” I asked.

Tristan explained, “He changes to one, he gets a little taller, a little stronger, a little more sluggish.  He changes to another, gets better eyes, ears…”

“Thus the headphones,” Kenzie said.

“…and less responsive in hand-eye coordination to go with it.  He tries to balance, but lately it’s been getting worse.”

“What happens if he doesn’t change?”

“The body stays the same,” Sveta said.  “He doesn’t change physically.”

“Which is good.”

“But he doesn’t change mentally either.  He says he can’t tap those emotions he’s not using, he can’t think as clearly, his thoughts go in circles.”

“Lose-lose,” I said.

“Something like that,” Ashley said.

I could hear Chris’ approach, now.  The sound of branches breaking underfoot, the rustling of under- and over-growth.

He’d grown.  He’d shucked off his clothes and he’d donned what looked like an oversized pair of shorts in a coarse cloth.  They had to have taken up most of the bag’s space.  He was twelve feet tall, with skewed proportions.  Large legs, large around the middle, large hands, all with coarse hair.  His shoulders seemed somewhat narrow, his neck long, his head only a little larger than normal, with faintly pronounced tusks.  His hair, wild before, was just a bit longer than it had been.

“He chose one of the more pleasant looking forms,” Kenzie said, cheerful.  She grabbed her stuff.

How in the fuck was I supposed to make someone like Chris marketable?  How was I supposed to wrangle Ashley or handle Tristan’s issue?

“Twenty minutes,” Tristan said.  “Then he changes back.  We should hurry.”

Capture the flag.  Right.  A part of me wished I hadn’t brought it up.  I could have left things at this, with powers explained and demonstrated in brief, and then I could have taken a few days to think.

I needed a few days to think, so feelings wouldn’t be hurt, damage wouldn’t be done.

I didn’t have it.  I’d lose too much stock with these guys if I changed my mind.  Chris and Ashley especially.

“Who wants to be team leaders?” I asked.

Tristan raised one hand.  Ashley raised another.

“Ashley, you want to pick first?” I asked.

“Kenzie.”

“Woo!” Kenzie cheered.

“Sveta,” Tristan said.  “You’d be my second pick, after Rain.  Weld fan club.”

“Chris,” Ashley said.  She pulled on her mask.  It was v-shaped, covering the nose, ears, and eyes, leaving just a hint of her eyebrows visible above.

“You guys set up over there, opposite side of the hill, then,” I said.  Ashley and the two youngest members of the team.

“You’re filling in for Rain?” Tristan asked me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m mostly interested in seeing how you guys operate, so I’ll mostly stick to playing defense and keeping an eye on things.”

“Alright.  I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” he said.

I wasn’t so sure.  I could see the way he set his jaw, before he pulled his horned helmet on.  I had an idea of his disposition already.  I could see the look of Ashley’s eyes behind her mask, too.  She wanted to be leader, by the looks of things, and that meant she had something to prove.  I saw Chris as the giant, properly smiling for the first time since I’d met him, as he looked back over one shoulder, lumbering away.  It made me more concerned, rather than less.

Sveta took my hand, squeezing it.  Off to the side, Tristan was drawing something out of motes of light, ten feet tall and twenty feet wide.  A wall.

I’d wanted to test them, to see how they functioned as discrete units, and possibly to highlight difficulties.

The more I saw, the less sure I was that these guys were equipped to handle even a friendly contest.  There were so many messy parts to this.  Above all else, the ones with the power seemed least suited to wield it.

“Believe in us,” Sveta said, her voice soft.

I wanted to.  I really did.

“I think,” I said, and I said it to Tristan, “You should take this opportunity to explain your game plan.”

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Glare – 3.1

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Cities, like people, got their second chances.  Few cities had needed one so badly as this.  I was left hoping the other cities were doing better with their second opportunities, because nothing I was seeing was very promising, here.

The four teams under the Wardens’ umbrella, now condensed down to three, were divided into those who wanted to return to the way things had been and those who wanted to forge a new way forward, learning from the mistakes of the past.  The appeal of returning to a semblance of what we’d had was clear- we missed the foods, the places, the familiar businesses and media, the familiar faces.

We wanted normal and even now every meal, every soap we used, every piece of clothing, it was a reminder of how far from normal we were.  It was different and often less because we had less, and we had less of a footing.  I wasn’t the only person who felt their stomach sink when we saw the news two weeks after the broken trigger had decimated the reconstruction workers’ protest, saying that the transportation strike was imminent, and that factory workers were contemplating joining in, an across-the-board attempt to demand stability and structure.

It was important, a line had to be drawn and the endless talks about what our government would look like needed to end, but I still saw the reports and I knew the foods, clothes, and routine I wanted were going to have to wait that much longer.

That was one of the prevailing arguments for normal, for going back.  This section of the city, this settlement, was the counterpoint.

Brockton Bay had been a port, growing as the industry did.  A lot of what made it work as a fledgling port city made New Brockton work as one of our first footholds in Earth Gimel.  Lumber, quarrying, some surface level minerals, and geography protected from the harshest sweeps of cold weather from the north.

The industry had become a prominent part of the city, and then the greater industry had outgrown it.  Things had reached the point where it was easier to take one big ship and go to Boston and transport goods from there than to take two smaller ships and go to Brockton Bay, even if Brockton Bay was closer to the goods’ destination.  The factories and goods went where the ships went, because it wasn’t sensible to ship raw materials from Boston to Brockton Bay to do manufacturing when Boston could handle it.

New Brockton felt like it sat on that brink between relevance and ruin.  As a settlement, it was defined by tall buildings and the edifices of heavy industry.  There were ships finding their way past each other on the water and big brick buildings with black plumes of smoke rising from their chimneys.  Already back to the ways of an era that predated me, cutting corners to produce more at a cost to tomorrow.  It was crowded and bursting at the seams, and it had been for a while now, trying to grow despite the constraints of water and mountain around it.

It didn’t escape me that the settlement continued to chug along while the gears and belts of the greater megalopolis were grinding to a stop under strikes and shutdowns.

I walked, rather than fly, because the directions I’d been given mandated it.  I suspected it was intentional.  I knew there were eyes on me, I knew who some of those eyes belonged to, and I had strong suspicions about others.

The racist graffiti no longer dominated downtown, though I did see some, with half of it partially painted over or altered.  Many of the people who had lived and thrived in Brockton Bay had made their way here, after all.  An attempt had been made to use wall space, to give the tenements-and-factories color when mirrored windows on skycrapers didn’t steal it from the sky or water.  Murals now decorated many of the walls and building fronts, no doubt an attempt to leave less open wall space for the gang tags and symbols.  Animals and symbols of humanity like clasped hands covered residential areas.  Green trees, branches, and lush mountains painted almost ironically on the sides of factories and power plants.

There were places that mirrored home, in layout and the buildings that had been placed.  The area that had been the Towers at the southwest corner of the city was still the Towers.  Downtown was still where Downtown had been.  A Lord Street stabbed north-to-south through the settlement.  Despite the attempts, it wasn’t home.  It came from something different.

Such was the counterpoint: in attempting to paint a picture of home, we might distort or create a caricature of that picture.  If we rushed it or forced it, we risked making some of the same fundamental mistakes we’d made before, building on cracked foundations.

Seeing the murals, the directions I’d received started to make sense.  The path was byzantine.  Go the way the wolf and his cubs are looking.  A wolf and three cubs that looked like they were made of white smoke were painted on a concrete wall.  They stood facing one way, but their heads were looking back.

Walk beneath the leaping rabbit.  A rabbit decorated an arch at the edge of a children’s park.  The park felt small and lonely amid larger, taller buildings, partially fenced in, with room for two swings, a slide, a sandbox and one basketball half-court that would have to be vacated if a car came through to use the parking garage or if the dump truck came for the dumpster at the back of a building.

Follow the snake.

If I hadn’t known it was a snake, I might not have realized what it was.  It was sectioned off, the skeleton of a winding serpent with each vertebrae several feet from the other.  Three white pieces along one wall, a white-painted drain cover, then more segments on the wall opposite.

The painted lines of a crosswalk took me across the street.  I followed more segments of the snake to reach one of the larger apartment complexes, four identical L-shaped buildings framing a plaza.  The bottom floors of the buildings and the lowest floors along the inside of each ‘L’ had some basic stores.

Two years ago, this would have been one of the nicer areas in Earth Gimel, if a little basic.  No-name grocery store, clothing store, and home-goods store.  It was dated already, and I could already imagine two years from now, when various murals might be faded or defaced, when the metal chairs and tables would be rusted, the stores closed or forgotten.  The snake cut through the plaza, which could have seated two hundred people, but currently had six.  Any earlier and there would have been people having a late lunch.  Any later and it would be time for an early dinner or an after-work bite to eat.

A tunnel led through the body of one of the apartment buildings, leading from plaza to parking lot.  The mural of a cat with its back twisting and arching was painted on the walls and roof.  Its paws stuck out and across the footpath firmly pressed down on the snake’s neck.

‘Wait’ was the last instruction.

I checked my phone.  One message:

K:
K.

I flicked my thumb, spun up the music player and then fished my earbuds out of the pocket of my jacket.  I put only one in, so I could keep one ear out for trouble.

I waited long enough for five songs to start and stop.  A pair of people arrived at the plaza, got their food, ate, and left, before anything happened.  I wondered more than once if I’d been baited to come here as a way of making me waste time.

“You get fifteen minutes.”

I turned my head in the direction of the parking lot, turning off my music and pulling the ear-bud free.  I moved my hand in a circle to catch most of the length of cord in a loop.

Tattletale had reversed her costume colors from black on lavender to a more royal purple on black.  The same pattern of lines slashing across her costume remained- horizontal line across the upper chest, vertical line slashing down from that, to form a stylized ‘T’.  Another horizontal line jutted out from halfway down, followed by another vertical line piercing that line, a smaller ‘t’ nestled under the right arm of its big brother.  She wasn’t the type to get photographed or caught clearly on video, and it was painted in such broad strokes that I suspected many people missed it.

It kind of smacked of narcissism, I felt, to wear one’s initials.  The more black costume, at least, looked more distinguished.  Her hair needed a bit of combing, like it had been tousled by the wind and it hadn’t been fixed.

She was followed by a flurry of small birds that settled on the street by the exit of the alley, and by one bodyguard.  The cape was burly, wearing a skintight suit that showed off his muscles, and wore a heavy cloth hood with eyeholes cut out, a series of ‘x’ stitches forming a frowny-face.  The lines around his eyes were cut deep.  Very weary.  He stood with his hands clasped behind him.

On the other side of the tunnel, one of the men that had been eating in the plaza had approached.  He now stood with his back ramrod straight, his hands clasped behind him.  Very clean cut, hair short and styled, recently shaved, t-shirt, black slacks, and shiny black shoes.

I knew Tattletale knew how my forcefield worked.  If the man had a gun, he was potentially a danger to me.

“I like the cat,” I said, pointing.  “Subtle.”

“Fifteen minutes, Vicky,” Tattletale said.  “It’s going to be a lot less if you want to make small talk.  If this becomes you wagging your finger at me and acting all holier-than-thou, I’m walking.  I’m busy these days.  The only reason I’m giving you time out of my day is hometown respect.”

I fished in my pocket.  I pulled out the paper.  “This isn’t because you wanted to talk to me?”

“When you’re positioned like I am, you can’t ever do one thing.  That message was intended to do a few things at once.”

“I couldn’t help but notice your use of ‘Glory Hole’.  Seemed unnecessarily antagonistic.”

She leaned against the wall by the cat’s head and smiled at me.  “One, I’m unnecessarily antagonistic.  Two, it serves to let you know who the letter is from, it pushes you off balance if you’re in a position to be easily put off balance, which I would want to know about, and finally, three, if the messenger is the type to ignore my instructions, read the letter and try using that phrasing against you, then they’re liable to get hurt.  That makes it clear I’m to be listened to.  Cleat isn’t the brightest, and he could stand to learn that lesson.”

“And you wanting to talk to me wasn’t one of your reasons?”

“That’s something else entirely.  I offered Hollow Point three asks at a significant discount.  Three times they can reach out to me and get info, now that they’ve paid.  I did this to get them into my debt, to see if they were intelligent enough to ask good questions, and to get them used to paying me money for intel.  If that tide somehow rises, I want my fortunes to rise with it.  You turned up, and they wanted to know, were you the first of a larger group of heroes who were going to make a move?  Who were you, and what role did you play?”

“And your response was this?”

“Multiple purposes, Vicky.  Keep up.  If you don’t care enough you decide it’s not worth it and leave.  Unlikely.  You could get a little upset, and in the doing you reveal what you’re up to.  Or you’re invested on some level, and you reach out, and the dialogue is opened.  If the dialogue is opened, I’m better equipped to deal with you and to deal with Hollow Point.  How the dialogue is opened tells me a lot, too.  You could have come charging after me.  You didn’t.  You asked around for how to contact me, used a liaison, and you respected my direction and my rules in my part of the city.”

My part of the city, I thought.  Yeah.  Impressions verified – New Brockton had retained many of the problems of its predecessor.

“Cedar Point isn’t yours?” I asked.

She shrugged.  “We’ll see what it ends up being.  For now, you’ve got people of Cleat’s caliber there.”

“I asked around a bit before leaving.”

“I know.”

“The construction work dried up, people are moving elsewhere.   Nothing was drawing people in.  Then, in the span of a few days, a large number of people buy apartments, homes, and other properties.  Never mind the fact that there isn’t a lot going on there.  Now a lot of supervillains are making themselves comfortable, figuring out who’ll work with them and who won’t.  Some places and people might be open to them doing business, others are already feeling the pressure to leave, scary people hanging around and intimidating them.  People of Cleat’s caliber, maybe, but an awful lot of them.”

“It’s not the only place.  It’s the biggest of them,” Tattletale said.  “All the itinerant and teamless villains needed to settle somewhere eventually.  Hollow Point is just loose enough they won’t necessarily kill each other, but self preservation keeps them together and following some basic rules.  Some charisma here and there steers them.”

“New Brockton doesn’t count?” I asked.

“Different thing.  Hollow Point is the largest place without a major player heading things.  So far.  New Brockton obviously has its major players securely in place.”

“And even though that neighborhood isn’t yours and isn’t even close to yours, you want me gone?”

“No,” she said.  “You want you gone, if you know what’s good for you.  You don’t want to get involved with that.  You might make headway, but it won’t last.  You’re outnumbered, they’ve got better resources, and if you ever succeed to any measurable degree, they can do things like call in the second of the asks they bought from me.  Then they get an answer, and you have a bad day.”

“Alright,” I said.  I glanced back.  The man standing at the edge of the plaza hadn’t budged.  The brute with the bag over his head hadn’t either.

“If it’s not me they ask, then it’s someone else, and you potentially have an even worse day.  I know you hate my guts, but the reality is I’m one of the nice ones.”

There were a lot of responses I could give to that.  I bit my tongue.

I released my tongue and said, “Hypothetically, if you don’t mind hypotheticals…”

“I’m a great fan of the hypothetical.”

“…If I asked you where you suggested going, if Cedar Point isn’t workable or if it’s untouchable because someone like you is going to step in before any heroes make headway… what places would you suggest?  Outside of the established jurisdictions for teams.”

“I wouldn’t suggest anything.  It’s a wild west out there and there’s no place for you out there.  Not anymore.”

I folded my arms.  I’d expected an answer like this.

“The people who win are the people with clout.  While you were teaching school kids which direction a gun should point or hauling water out to the refugees still back on Bet, the rest of us were working.  I and people like me were getting our hooks in and laying groundwork to build something behind the scenes.  Taking over corner worlds, finding footholds in this world, starting up businesses, establishing reputations.  The big hero teams have some influence because they’ve been recruiting and they staked out their territory.  Hero and villain, we’re the major players, but we operate the same fundamental way.  We’re scary.  The thinkers, the masters, the masterminds, and the people with the biggest guns.”

“And Cedar Point?”

“Cedar Point, if you want to call it that, and its sister locations are late to the game.  They have some clout because they have numbers and a bit of organization, and because they can all scrape together enough money to call in a big gun if they really truly need it.  They probably won’t last.  Someone nasty will step in and take over what they’re trying to build and it’s probably going to be ugly.  The only reason they’ve lasted this long is that the rest of us have bigger fish to fry.  They’re still a few rungs up the totem pole above you, mind you.”

“It’s too hard so it’s not worth trying?”

“Go home, Vicky,” she said, almost sighing the words.  “Go back, figure out your family thing, keep trying to sign on to one of the big hero teams, you’re bound to find a position somewhere eventually.  Some cape will die in battle, and a seat will open up for you and you’ll do fine.  Or retire.  After what your sister did to you, nobody would blame you.”

I closed my eyes.

“Do what any self-respecting twenty-one year old would do after failing to get into university, get a job waitressing or making hero sandwiches.  Talk to your kids about the old Glory days.”

I opened my eyes.  “And what happens to Cedar Point, in this hypothetical?”

“I’m talking reality, Vicky.  It’s going to be the same thing that was going to happen before the villains turned up, and it’s the same thing that’s going to happen when and if you try and summarily fail to change things there.  The area struggles, it withers, it becomes irrelevant.  This isn’t your fight, and it’s not what you’re equipped to do.  You hit things.  You can take a bullet, unless you’re doing something peculiar like keeping your forcefield down while standing between a man with a gun and Snuff here.”

“Heya,” Snuff said, raising a hand.

I didn’t move a muscle, didn’t react.  Tattletale smiled.

“I know what you’re doing with your forcefield, Vicky.  Just like I did back then.  I know why you’re doing it, too.  I know you don’t belong in Cedar Point, and I know you’re just going to cause headaches for me and the actual heroes if you try anything.  It’s not your skillset, it’s not your powerset.”

I still had the paper in my hand.  I tapped it against my upper arm, my arms still folded.  “Four years, and you haven’t changed a bit since you raided that bank.”

“When we robbed that bank, I was doing multiple things all at once, laying groundwork for moves I wouldn’t make for weeks and months.  If I haven’t changed from that, I think I’m doing okay,” she said.

“Are you, though?” I asked.  “Your hair is messy, and you look tired.”

“I’m going to pretend you’re actually asking out of a concern for my well being, because if I didn’t pretend, I’d walk away, and I might even give some free-of-charge advice to those Hollow Point ruffians, telling them how to beat you if they run into you.”

“Entirely out of concern for your well being,” I said, with as little warmth and concern in my voice as I could muster.  “Hometown respect, you know.”

“I’m one of the major players now.  The other major players call me for a hint when they’re stuck on something.  I’m wealthy, well-positioned, and safe.  I’m now sharing the love and bringing some of that security, stability, and safety to others, in my very, very roundabout way.  It’s part of why I’m having this conversation with you.”

“Sure,” I said.  I paused.  “Speaking of you showing up, I’m surprised the rest of your old team didn’t turn up too, for old time or camaraderie’s sake.”

She turned.  With the way the light came through the tunnel, I could see the eye symbol on her chest in a slightly different shade of purple, hidden where the vertical bar met the horizontal, and the shadows meant I could no longer see her eyes or expression.   Maintaining the same tone, she said, “No, you’re not surprised.  You know full well they’re well positioned too.  They’re doing their own things.  They’re still a resource I can and will tap.”

“Gotcha,” I said.

“But I think you were trying to get a jab in, and that’s a good sign this conversation has run its course.  I’ll wish you good luck in your endeavors, whether you join a big team or end up making those sandwiches.  So long as you stay out of my way.”

“Out of curiosity,” I said.  I saw her pause, just as she was about to turn to walk away.  I continued, “Do you regret your part in what happened with my sister?”

“Do you?” she asked, without missing a beat.

“Absolutely,” I said, without any more hesitation than she’d shown.

“Be sure to call before you set foot in my neighborhood again.  You and your friend have a nice flight home.”

Friend?  My first thought was that she meant my autonomous forcefield, that she was personifying it.

Then I realized who she really meant.  Just as surprising that she would be aware, but not as alarming.

She hadn’t answered my question, but I hadn’t expected an answer.  She and Snuff walked to the parking lot, turning the corner there.  Behind me, the gunman was walking back to his table.

My impression was that I was better off heading the way I’d come than I was leaving.

The moment I didn’t have the roof of the tunnel over my head, I took to the air.

I was high enough that I could see the entirety of Tattletale’s realm, and where the city was bleeding into and through the mountains and forest to connect to other areas and the remainder of the megalopolis.  I could see the boats on the water, like ants on an anthill, the black smoke, and the patches that gleamed with a forced luster.

It wasn’t home.  The worst of the fucking racists were gone, I had to hope, but the rest of the bad stuff seemed to be firmly entrenched in there.

I drew my phone from my pocket.  I put the one earbud in, some music to drown out my thoughts while I steadied myself.

Me:
Did you record all of that?

A dark shape flew within a foot of me.  For an instant, I thought it might have been one of the small birds that had arrived with Tattletale.

It was a sphere, consisting of several layers like an onion, alternating blue and red.  The lens was a white circle, and as it roved, the layers moved to accommodate it looking around.  Several fins extended out from the two most external layers, moving independently of one another to correct its position and hold eerily steady in the wind.

Recorded it all,” the camera said, Kenzie’s voice with some synthesizer mixing things up.

“You got the sound, too?”

“Of course,” she said.  “Can I listen to it?

“No,” I said.  “Not yet.  Not when Tattletale operates the way she does.  I’ve got a long flight back.  Any way you can replay the conversation for me so I can listen to it on the way back, and figure out if anything needs redacting?”

Without listening in?

“I’d prefer if you listened in with the rest of the group.  I’m concerned Tattletale can say something to me that affects one of you.  She touched on some personal subjects, and I need to think about how much I’m comfortable sharing.”

Not a problem.  Give me a minute.

I started my flight home, the camera flying alongside me.

I expected the camera to speak, when Kenzie was ready.  I was a little surprised when it came through my ear-bud instead.

“…you’re bound to find a position somewhere eventually.  Some cape will die in battle, and a seat will open up for you and you’ll do fine.  Or retire.  After what your sister did to you, nobody would blame you.”

I was still, listening to this.  The others, Rain excepted, were gathered around the table.  The library had picnic tables and benches strewn around, and some patio chairs for reading outdoors when the weather was good. They had arranged themselves on a mixture of seats, with Ashley standing.  Kenzie’s laptop was sitting on a patio table, with Rain watching in through a halting, low-res webcam.

I’d been periodically pausing the conversation, to fill in gaps with basic knowledge and context, but I left things alone for this one.

“Do what any self-respecting twenty-one year old would do after failing to get into university, get a job waitressing or making hero sandwiches.  Talk to your kids about the old Glory days.”

“Pause,” I said.

The recording paused.

“It took her a little while to get around to it, but it’s worth stressing that this is who she is.  I thought about redacting these parts, but I think it’s important you know.  The PRT thought she had the ability to sense weak points, primarily psychological ones.  I agree with that assessment.”

“Your sister is Panacea, right?” Chris asked.

I tensed a bit.

“Chris,” Sveta said.  “I think Victoria would prefer it if we glossed over that part.”

“It’s for context.  Like she just said, it stresses who Tattletale is.”

“She was a healer,” I said.  “Tattletale’s words caught her in a bad way at a bad time.  Two months later, she had a mental breakdown.  In part because of what Tattletale said.  She put me in the hospital.  Let’s leave it at that.”

“Resume recording,” Kenzie said.

And what happens to Cedar Point, in this hypothetical?

“I’m talking reality, Vicky.  It’s going to be the same thing that was going to happen before the villains turned up, and it’s the same thing that’s going to happen when and if you try and summarily fail to change things there.”

“Pause,” I said.  “She likes to act like she knows what’s going to happen, but it’s worth saying she can be surprised.  She was surprised at the bank.  She and her team pulled it off regardless, but… she was surprised by my arrival, and by my sister being there.”

“Worth keeping in mind,” Tristan said.  “If we wind up fighting her.”

“I’m giving you all the info I can, so you can make an informed decision,” I said.  “Resume.”

-The area struggles, it withers, it becomes irrelevant.  This isn’t your fight, and it’s not what you’re equipped to do.  You hit things.  You-

Kenzie’s voice chimed in with a cheerful, synthesized, “Redacted!

“Pause.  Redacted because it’s a weak point,” I said.  “Power-related.”

“I think I know,” Sveta said.  “If this makes you doubt Victoria at all, I hope me vouching for her helps.”

“It helps,” Kenzie said.  “Not that I was doubting her.”

“Resume,” I said.

-I know you don’t belong in Cedar Point, and I know you’re just going to cause headaches for me and the actual heroes if you try anything.  It’s not your skillset, it’s not your powerset.

There was a small chime as a message appeared in the corner of the laptop.  The recording paused in response to the message appearing.

Rain:  Is it ours?

“That’s a conversation I want to have shortly,” I said.  “Powers.”

“I’m looking forward to this,” Chris said.

Behind him, pacing a little, Ashley smiled.

Right.

“Resume,” I said.

“Redacted, redacted,” Kenzie’s synthesized voice played.  Then Tattletale’s voice came up again.  “I’m one of the major players now.  The other major players call me for a hint when they’re stuck on something.  I’m wealthy, well-positioned, and safe.  I’m now sharing the love and bringing some of that security, stability, and safety to others, in my very, very roundabout way.  It’s part of why I’m having this conversation with you.

“Stop,” I said.  The recording paused, and Kenzie hit a keyboard shortcut to close the window.  “Everything that followed was small talk, some threats from her, and stuff about my sister I don’t want to get into.  That’s Tattletale.  That’s how she sees the world.  I do believe her when she says there’s no good way to break into this scene.  There are a lot of people who want to hold their positions and the power they’ve taken for themselves, and when you’ve cornered them, they’re going to call people like Tattletale for backup.”

“Or worse,” Ashley said.  That was apparently what she’d fixated on, during the earlier part of the conversation.

“Or worse.  People who are good at the roles they’ve taken on, well-proven by years of experience, people who can and will casually destroy you.”

“No matter what we do,” Sveta said, “We’re going to run into trouble.  So we do nothing or we plan for it.”

“We plan for it,” Tristan said.  “Ashley and I were talking about this.  Something that might fit our niche, and gives key members of our team what they’re looking for.”

He looked at Kenzie as he said the last bit, and Kenzie visibly perked up.

“You have a game plan?” I asked.

“The start of one,” Tristan said.  “Maybe.”

I thought about that for a moment.  The others exchanged a few words, and a chime signaled Rain’s comment for the convo – he and Tristan had apparently exchanged some messages about the plan.

“Did you guys bring costume stuff?” I asked, when there was an opening.  “Those of you that have it?”

That got me confirmation from about half of the group.

“I have spare, basic masks for those that need them,” I said.  “I also have the start of my team outline written up on my laptop.  What do you guys say we move to an area with some elbow room, you can show me enough of your powers that I know what to put in the document, and we talk about what you’ve got in mind?”

It might as well have been a rhetorical question.  None of them were about to say no to that.

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