Torch – 7.9

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

“Capricorn, Antares, Tress, Cryptid, and Lookout,” Lord of Loss made the introductions.  “This is Nursery, Marquis, Spruce, and Carnassial.”

“Or Carn,” the guy with the toothy bandanna said.  “Not Carnie.”

“Ah, name pronunciations,” Marquis said.  “I admire those that can reinvent themselves.”

He met my eyes again.  Capricorn, too, gave me a glance.

What was I supposed to say or do?  Was it better to walk away?  Could I afford that weakness?

I hated doubting myself.  I hated when the questions and anxiety seeped in.  What was supposed to be me moving away from being the overconfident, violent heroine and toward something more measured was twisted by the doubts.  It took the same dynamic and same decisions but made them into a loss of confidence and strength, in favor of self-compromise and hesitation.

“Is there a bit of history or something here?” Carn asked.

My head turned, eyes widening.  How was I supposed to answer that?  How did I frame in one answer something I couldn’t frame in hours of wrestling with my interpretation of things, alone?

“A minor conflict of interest,” Lord of Loss said, “It’s handled.”

The ‘handled’ thing was a point I tripped on.

He wasn’t talking about Marquis and I.  The focus was on Capricorn and the three men who had walked away.

“You invited me into your inner circle,” Carn said.  “I get that, I’m glad .  I think we’ve rewarded your trust with good work.”

“You have,” Lord of Loss said.

“Is there a past history between you and this group?  How does that impact the Ferrymen?”

“The only immediate conflict of interest with this team is to do with the community center attack that Nursery and I participated in.  Antares.  She and I both feel this isn’t a problem.  We can do business.”

I was very aware of the way Marquis was watching me.  He’d seen how I’d reacted when I thought our relationship had come up.  Damn it.

Capricorn spoke up, “There isn’t any connection between me and Lord of Loss, aside from us knowing some of the same people.”

“Our community of powers is a small world,” Nursery said.  “Incestuous.”

“I feel the need to speak up,” Marquis said.

No.  You asshole.

“Another conflict of interest.  I don’t think it should change anything, but I also have something of a connection to Antares.”

“What kind?” Nursery asked.

“A family connection,” Marquis said.

My mouth opened, but the words took a second longer.  Lord of Loss took the opportunity to talk over my nonexistent words, “I didn’t know that.”

I used the words I hadn’t been able to find, trying to stay measured when I felt anything but.  “I wouldn’t say family.  We’re related, and even that is a forced use of the term.”

“Panacea is my daughter.  She is also your sister.  The distinction between relations and family is one of weight.  Good or bad, she has an important place in our hearts.”

“Shit,” I heard Capricorn, barely audible.

“She’s my adopted sister,” I said.  I was one hundred percent aware of how petty it seemed to seize on ‘adopted’, and how I was doing the exact same thing that had left me utterly enraged in the past when others had done it.  “I’m not focusing on the adoption because she wasn’t family.  I’m trying to make it clear that you and I aren’t that connected.  There’s an additional half-step of separation.”

“We’re connected through shared association with one meaningful person.  I don’t want to mislead my colleagues.”

I grit my teeth for a second.  More and more, it felt like I was having to measure out or calculate my words.  It was the handling of something volatile in the same way the building of a sensitive bomb might be.  One mistake, and things would get messy.

Careful, avoid the disaster, keep it simple with your eye on the objective.  “No disrespect intended, Marquis, but you weren’t in our lives when she-”

Don’t fuck it up now, Victoria, I thought, as emotions got in the way of words.  Don’t show weakness, don’t snap.

“-and I grew up together.  I haven’t been a part of her life since you entered the picture.  You and I aren’t connected in any… what did you say?  Impactful way?”

“Important,” Marquis said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I’ll concede the point.”

“Thank you,” I said.  I was proud, but not of winning the argument, because it was a petty argument in a way.  I was proud of getting through it.  It was the kind of pride I couldn’t really explain to anyone, even Sveta.

Maybe Dr. Darnall.

Marquis turned to Lord of Loss.  “Her family was the group that put me in the Birdcage for thirteen years, four months.  No hard feelings- that was the risk I took.  They took it on themselves to raise my daughter, part of that being my suggestion.  I do have hard feelings, it’s to do with how they raised her.  She wasn’t happy.”

Pride was gone.  Heavy feelings seeped in and swelled inside me.

“No,” I said.  I wanted this conversation to be done with.  “She wasn’t.”

“But,” Marquis said.  “She sang your praises, Antares, as much as she was able to speak of any of it.  She loved you and she felt loved.”

“I don’t… disagree,” I said, my voice tight, “But is this relevant?”

“It’s relevant,” Marquis said it with an assured confidence.  “You were or are her family and that mattered.  I feel I owe you a debt, especially considering the nightmarish way things ended.”

It was a gut punch to hear that.  There was no armor or means of really defending against it.  I couldn’t come up with words, and as I stood there, taking that in, I thought I might fly away.

Sveta touched my arm, and I hesitated in flying.  Through that moment of hesitation, the flying became harder to do because I couldn’t explain why I was leaving now, instead of a moment ago.

The team was hearing this.

I stayed put, brought my arm up to the arm in the sling to a position where I was effectively folding my arms, and nodded.

“I mention this,” Marquis said, and he was facing Lord of Loss as he said it, “Because I am biased.  I might not have a vote or anything resembling one in this arrangement of convenience we have, but I would consider it a favor if we could extend every courtesy to Antares and her team.”

“Your soft favors are more effective than the hard promises and oaths, Marquis,” Lord of Loss said.

“I have no idea what you mean,” Marquis said.  “I always keep my promises and oaths.”

“It’s when there are unclear words and rules that are open to interpretation that you’re most comfortable and most dangerous,” Lord of Loss said.  “We don’t know Breakthrough or what they want.  You want to ask for this kind of favor now?”

Marquis offered a half-smile, the point of mustache at one corner of his mouth rising.  “Yes.”

“Annoyingly open ended,” Lord of Loss said.  “Fine.  Talk to me, Breakthrough.”

Capricorn glanced at me, then asked, “How well do you know the people in your territory?”

“It depends on who and where,” Lord of Loss said.

“Is every cape or criminal here working for you?” Tristan asked.

“No,” Lord of Loss said.  “Why?”

“We heard you controlled Earth N.  It’s common knowledge.”

“I do control it.  We have three medium-sized towns and several small areas we’re occupying.  I know the people there.  These satellite areas are focused on a combination of farming, fishing, foraging, and lumber, with strictly temporary accommodation.  When the seasons are inappropriate for the work being done, or the resource industries falter because there are greener pastures elsewhere, we rent out the cabins.”

“To capes and criminals?” Capricorn asked.

“It would be a very brave and adventurous person who used the money they could spend on an apartment in Norwalk or Fairfield to rent a small cabin here instead.  We’re a whole other world away, and the retreats put the people staying there a good distance from conveniences and necessities.”

“People come here to hide,” Capricorn said.  “You facilitate that.”

“Some people want their privacy.  In the late fall, winter, and early spring, these cabins serve no purpose and offer little connection to society.  We tapped a market that wanted that isolation.”

“Stuff like tinkers building things?” Lookout asked.

“Perhaps.  Are you here about errant tinkers?” Lord of Loss asked.

“We’re here because people may be using Earth N as a staging ground for their activities,” Capricorn said.

“That would be the nature of the arrangement,” Lord of Loss said.  “We keep an eye out for anything that would bring too much trouble down on Earth N.  We intervene in cases of serious weapons, intent to do harm to members of Earth N, kidnap victims being taken to one of the retreats for holding.”

“What about intent to do harm to anyone outside of Earth N?” I asked.  “Would you catch that?”

“We have powers available to us that could see that kind of intent, if in the right time and place.”

“What about other times and places?” Capricorn asked.  “How much of an eye are you keeping on them?”

“Very little,” Lord of Loss said.  “I’m going to be honest, as part of Marquis’ open-ended request.  We have other things we do.  The retreats?   They aren’t valuable, it’s not worth excessive time, it’s not worth excessive manpower, and being too careful would ruin the point of those retreats.”

“The fact that a hero team is knocking on our door and asking about things suggests it might be important,” Marquis said.

He looked so much like her.  The eyes, the hair, the mouth.  The shoulders.

“True,” Lord of Loss admitted.  He seated his large armored form on the ground, one hand behind him to prop himself up.  “It’s not an everyday thing.”

Sveta, Capricorn, Lookout and I exchanged looks.  Cryptid was being very still and tense, his clothes occasionally moving a fraction when the wind blew strong.

I thought of the sports team.  Was the woman’s inability to work because she was busy or was it something else?  “These retreats, they have internet?  Is there cell service?”

“It’s out more often than not.  It’s easier to travel into the Norfair span and use facilities there than it is to rely on what the cabins offer.  The service is up for one or two hours a day, and it’s restricted at those times.”

“It was better, but that was before,” Nursery said.  “The attacks have been knocking out services.  The city has had outages.”

“Amen,” Lookout said.

Cryptid nodded.

“You said attacks?” I asked. “These aren’t accidents or poorly laid groundwork breaking down?”

Sveta added, “Some people were suggesting the outages were malicious, but the people in charge have been quiet.  If there are any arrests, they aren’t telling anyone about them.”

“It’s very malicious,” Nursery said.  “Enemies of Gimel know they can’t pick a fight.  Our population is small, but the number of capes scares them off.  They know where Gimel is vulnerable.”

I had some idea, too.  I’d thought about how much damage the outages, communication loss and disruption of both work and supply had done, especially with the timing.

The colder months were coming.  We were already in a bad spot, but if infrastructure was stressed or disabled… the costs and loss of labor would have an immense impact.

“This is the war.  We’re being attacked,” I said.

“Undermined,” Nursery said.

They were going after the weak points, hitting them again and again, so the cracks would fan out.  Something would give.

“Can you give us the details on these attacks so we can confirm that ourselves?” Capricorn asked.  “There might be a lead we can chase.”

“Possibly, but not now,” Nursery said.  “I have to talk to people before I share our sources, and some don’t like your team very much.  It may take convincing.”

Capricorn nodded.

Nursery had been tied into Prancer’s group by some fashion.  There would be some upset people.

“Are these the same people we’re after?” Sveta asked me.  “It’s similar M.O.s.  They’re hurting us by attacking the city.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “If so, they have an uncanny ability to hide their activities and hit the city where it hurts.”

“These people,” Lord of Loss said.  “Am I right in guessing you’re after the culprits of the portal attacks?”

Damn it.  It wasn’t a hard conclusion to draw, but it put us in an awkward spot.

“Yes,” Capricorn said.  “Yeah, you’re right.”

I really hoped Lord of Loss and his trusted people weren’t on the enemy’s side, or we’d tipped them off, and they were now covering every base.

Capricorn nodded.  “We have reasons to believe you weren’t directly involved.  One of those reasons is that we have pictures with their faces.”

“You’ll recognize one,” I said.

He held out his hand in Lookout’s direction.  She gave him a phone, the screen glowing.

Capricorn found what he was looking for.  “These are the ones we have so far.”

The others approached Marquis, who took the phone and held it in a position where most of the others could see it.  I hung back a bit.

It was unnerving.  I didn’t trust myself like this.

“That looks like Kingdom Come,” Nursery observed.  “That’s the one I’m meant to recognize?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “That was my thought.  You’ve worked with him.  Can you point us in his general direction?”

“No.  He didn’t share much.  Not location, not what he’s doing now that the community center is done.  I saw him four times at one place where villains meet, and he turned down five jobs in that span of time.  He’s picky about picking jobs that don’t weigh on his sense of morality.”

One thing that I’d picked up from familial osmosis was that routines were a trap.  If Kingdom Come spent long periods of time in a place like a drinking establishment, and if he always attended the same church on set dates, then that was something we could use to track him down.

Knowing his routine was a win.  I wished we had more.

“You have no idea where he lived?” I asked.

“No.  I had the impression it was outside of Gimel, but not Earth N.  He attended church daily.”

“He wasn’t Fallen?” Capricorn asked.

She shook her head.  “I don’t know.  He didn’t give me that impression.  No tattoos, no drugs, no vulgarity.  His faith seemed genuine, and I’ve known a lot of faithful over the years.  I think I could tell if he was Fallen.”

If it was only that easy, I thought.  Some broadcast what they were, but others, like Scapegoat?  It was a surprise.

That made me think.

“Do you think,” I said, “That he could sympathize with the Fallen?  Not being a member, but helping and communicating with them?”

“He likes leading people to good things or the right path.  He could have done that with the Fallen, thinking they needed saving and shepherding.”

“And he would then work with them, share information?”

“I don’t know,” Nursery said.  “He was decent.”

“Aside from taking over crowds and attacking community centers,” I said.

“He did it because he thought it was just and right.”

“And because of the money,” Lord of Loss said.  “He asked for pay in New Dollars, if that helps.”

“Anything else?” Capricorn asked.  “Any information about him could help us.”

Lord of Loss shook his head.  “I’ll pass on anything I think of.  I can find you online?”

“I’m easy to find,” Capricorn said.  “Email or phone.”

Lord of Loss nodded.  He reached down for the phone that Marquis held, and then gestured with a finger as long as my forearm, the digit wrapped in the same bands of metal as the rest of him.

“I can’t help but notice the lack of costumes on these images,” Carn said.  “These are civilian identities.”

“Composites,” Lookout said.  “Three dimensional models pulled from other places.  They’re best-guesses.”

I was so glad she didn’t elaborate.  I glanced at Cryptid, and saw his hand move slightly.  It was as if he’d read my mind; he was ready to shut Lookout up if need be.

“These images are all we have.  These guys will strike again,” Capricorn said.  “We need to stop that from happening.  Some bending of the rules against people willing to act on this major a scale makes sense.”

“The civilian identities matter.  You can’t go after people in their civilian guises,” Carn said.

“No matter what they’ve done?” Capricorn asked.  “That’s dangerous and ridiculous.  They tore holes in reality.  A lot of people died.”

“Find another way if you want my help,” Carn said.  “Sorry, Lord of Loss, Marquis, I can’t support this.”

“Step away, then,” Lord of Loss said.  “Stay in sight.  No phone calls.”

“I’ve lost your trust so easily?” Carn asked.

“My trust isn’t the question,” Lord of Loss said.  “Theirs is.  I trust you enough, but I can’t have their mistrust for you or yours for them disturb business.”

Carn hesitated.  Narrowed eyes swept over all of us.  He walked off a distance, to one of the large rocks in a front lawn that served as a roost.  He sat on it, not facing us.

“I know this woman with the glasses and black hair,” Lord of Loss said.  “She was popular with several of the people who had cabins in the same area.  Usually they kept to themselves and wanted their isolation, but she ran poker games twice a week and most attended.”

“That’s a potential list of people who could have ties to her and the greater operation,” I said.

“One that exists entirely in my head.  I won’t give you that list.  I’ll call and inquire myself,” Lord of Loss said.

“That would help,” Capricorn said.

It helped, but it left me less sure of Lord of Loss and of this stage in things.

“The investigation hasn’t moved forward, has it?” Marquis asked.

“We made some significant progress sharing information just now,” Capricorn said.

“I didn’t mean here.  I meant media, government, and courts,” Marquis said.  “Any progress?  Answers from those in power?”

I  shook my head.  “No news.  They aren’t naming culprits, which is weird.  People need that closure.”

“Pay attention to that,” Marquis said.

He said that, and I felt a chill as the sound of his voice echoed with memory.

On the battlefield after Gold Morning.  Amy.  My traitorous, mutilated heart had soared on recognizing her.

She’d veered between cultivated confidence and being distraught.  I hadn’t recognized any of the faces she’d shown me.  I didn’t recognize the voices.

Here, I could match Amy’s voice from back then.  I recognized the cadence, and the confidence.

She’d picked it up from being around Marquis.

I’d claimed there was no real connection and now it was harder to defend that claim.  It was a stupid, mindless link between past and present, and I still felt chilled.

I couldn’t even remember what he’d said just now, or the conversation before it.

I was saved from embarrassing myself only by Lord of Loss stating, “That one arrived last night and hasn’t left today.  They’ve been here for a little while.”

He was indicating the phone with the pictures, which Marquis was holding up for him to look down on.

Capricorn took a step forward.  “Which?  May I approach?”

He got a wave of the hand, giving the permission, and approached, finding a position to see between Marquis and Lord of Loss.  For our benefit, he said, “The woman with black hair.  She was a leader for this particular cell.”

“She rented one of the retreats,” Lord of Loss said.  “We take note when capes and people with money enter or leave the station.  She was one.”

“That would be my focus,” Spruce said.  “If you have questions, I can answer them.”

“You set up and manage the security cameras?” Lookout asked.

“Among other things.”

“I see.  Hmm, um,” Lookout said.  “It’s good you’re trying.  I’ve got your footage, and my computers back home are looking it over.  It looks like she left yesterday at the usual time, but her bag looks bigger.  She might have packed up.”

“She might not have packed up everything,” Sveta said.

I imagined my imminent move to Ashley’s apartment.  “Yeah.  It’s hard to get everything.  The other possibility is that she’s up to something.”

“More use of Earth N as a staging ground,” Capricorn said.

It was an unnecessary dig, but one I could sympathize with.  In exchange for a small profit, the warlord of Earth N had given some horrendous people even more horrendous elbow room to do their work.

I frowned.  “Lord of Loss, do you have any idea what her powers are?”

“Powers?  No.  We paid attention to her because she had money.”

“She might have a minor mutation,” Sveta said.  “She always wears sunglasses.  It’s a good clue someone has powers, if they’re covering something up.”

“It also applies to the power-affected,” Marquis said.

Was that a dig?  I had no idea, and I hated that I was even asking myself, instead of ignoring it.  Fuck me.

“The problem is, whoever or whatever she is, powers we don’t know are dangerous,” Sveta said.  “We risk tipping them off.  There’s a chance she could come back.”

“If we ignore it, she might find out we visited through rumors,” Capricorn said.  “That could be enough for her to run for it.  I say we go now.  It gives us a chance to be on her heels.”

“I agree with Capricorn.  But only if Lord of Loss is willing to let us step in,” I said.

“Good answer,” Lord of Loss said.  His tone had changed slightly.  More serious.

“It impacts your business, having us there and poking around” I said.  “I understand that, but they attacked all of us, when they did what they did.”

“Back at the community center.  When the gun went off and Miss Fume Hood was shot, I struck a deal with you,” Lord of Loss said.

“We let each other go, so I could help her,” I said.  “You asked me to tell people you weren’t responsible.”

“Our goal was to capture, hold, and release.  Killing wasn’t the intent.  You held up your end of the deal, you made that clear.”

“I tried my best.  I didn’t have as much clout as I would have liked, being the person who was hiding her powers.  I told my boss it was important, and he handled it.”

“It was enough,” he said.  “Thank you.  And in thanks, continuing this trend of cooperation, in exchange for information and images you’ve shared, and because of Marquis’ goodwill, you can investigate.  I have trucks.”

It didn’t take long for us to get moving, after Lookout picked up her stuff.  Lord of Loss had cars and trucks.  Capricorn ended up in the driver’s seat again.  Marquis had Spruce as a chauffeur.  Lord of Loss changed into a flier.

I thought about flying myself, but I defaulted once again to sticking with the group.

I took a seat in the back.  The truck had a trailer attached at the back, and Cryptid seated himself in it.  The little window at the rear of the truck was left open, so Cryptid’s head wasn’t that far from us.

The first minute or so of driving was painful.  The silence dragged.

I didn’t know what to say.

No, maybe I did.

“Marquis gives me the impression he’s the real person in charge, here,” I said.  “With Lord of Loss as the decoy king.”

“I kind of got that vibe too,” Sveta said.

“Aw, I keep missing stuff,” Lookout said.

Capricorn was silent, but he was more focused on driving.

“It’s little things you learn to watch out for,” Sveta said.  “This is more of a feeling thing than it is logic.  We don’t have any evidence.”

“Ah huh,” Lookout said.

Sveta was sitting in the front seat. She turned her head around one-hundred and eighty degrees, tilting her body to one side so she could look past the headrest.  I gave her my most convincing smile.

Her arm released, forearm and hand dropping between the two front seats.  Tendrils bent, and her hand moved up to the seat beside me, reaching for my hand.

I took it and gave it a bit of a waggle.

Twenty minutes of driving through nowhere, with only a bit of flattened grass where cars had passed over.  Cryptid reverted back to being Chris, relying on his cloaking and the fact we were facing forward and he was behind us to maintain his modesty.  Were the roads busier or if Marquis was driving behind us, it might have been more awkward.

“If you don’t want to do the thing tonight because you’re tired or upset or something, it’s okay,” Lookout said.  “It’s not that important.”

I didn’t want to.  I was exhausted.

“I’ll come,” I said.  “Unless something happens in the next hour.  It’s important.”

Marquis’ car slowed down.  We came to a stop on a hill with the cars leaning at almost a forty-five degree angle.  It felt like they would roll down the hill with one good push.

Not that I was thinking of petty, stupid violence as a way of releasing pent-up stress.

Marquis.  He stepped out of his car, Spruce at the other side.  Marquis was disheveled in a way that looked very calculated, and it was made all the more pointed by Spruce’s neatness.

The hill had woods on the other side, and the woods served as a barrier to give us a view of the cabin, while not letting anyone in the cabin get a view of us.

No guarantee it was empty.

“Lookout, can you give us a scan?” Capricorn asked.

“Not really a scan.  I can do a camera shot aimed at some special kinds of interpretation.”

“That works.  Whatever you got.”

She rummaged for a bit.  She had her bag at her back, cloaked, and she had stuff in her belt, with all its little pouches.  She found what she was looking for, aimed it, and took some pictures, adjusting various dials.

Her phone had the images.  Capricorn looked at them first, Sveta looking over his shoulder.  Then he showed Chris and I, starting with the better pictures.  Dark, with blurs where the grass caught the light, a vaguely human-shaped blur within the building.  Low to the ground, as if the person was sleeping on the floor.

Another shot, with more darkness, the grass wasn’t even visible, with only some faint striations running through it.  The power line that ran along the forest floor and up to the cabins glowed, and the electronics within.  There was a computer on the desk.  There was more on the wall and a great deal hooked up to the door.

Several came out all white.

“What are these?” Sveta asked.

“Tests.  Ignore them.  It’s the kind of thing I’m trying to figure out for secret project six-dash-nine, for our teammates.”

“Heat and electric resolutions are good,” I said, looking at the last few images.  One looked hyper-detailed, many more were fuzzy.  Another had fog rolling through it, that didn’t exist in reality.

“Can we get another heat pic, Lookout?” Capricorn asked.

“One second.  Lots of dials to adjust.”

I was very conscious of Marquis’ presence nearby.  It was as bad as seeing Presley on the train had been.  Someone reminiscent of Amy lurking in the corner of my vision.

He’d been fair, he’d been fine.  He’d explained my background without asking, but he’d also offered a favor.  Did I trust him?  No.

Did that list of pluses and minuses account for a net negative, to warrant how much I hated him?  Could I explain why I hated him?

He was, in a way, reminiscent of everything that had gone wrong with Amy.  Duplicity, villainy, the fact he breached my boundaries simply by being here when I didn’t want him to be, and that he’d stayed despite the conflict of interest, when the Ferrymen had left.

The others had some sense of what had happened now.  I’d shared hints, but I hadn’t spelled it out.

I would have to explain the Wretch.

Maybe if I went to Dr. Darnall.

“Victoria,” Capricorn called out.  There was a note of urgency.  “Sveta!”

“What?”

“Go!  He’s dying!”

“Door’s electrified!” Lookout shouted.

I flew.  Sveta was right behind me, struggling for a lack of good things to grab beyond the field of green.

I offered her my hand.

Just the force of her pulling made my sling wound hurt.  I could have asked Marquis for help, and yet there was no way I would.

I broke through the electrified door.  Sveta was right behind me, launching through the gap between myself and the top of the door.

A man, bloody, bearded, with a mullet and glasses.  He had a tattoo on his arm and I couldn’t see it because he was bleeding so much.

There were liters of blood on the ground and he didn’t have many to spare.  His head moved as I flew over to him, and his eyes were unfocused.

“My name is Kingdom Come,” he said.  “Help this man and help me.”

“What’s going on?” Sveta asked.

“He’s controlled,” I said.  “We’re going to help you, okay, Kingdom.  Stop struggling, you’re making it worse.”

“Can’t hear you,” he said.  “Can’t really see.  If I’d known you were coming, I wouldn’t have done this.”

“Help,” I said.  “Towels, by the bed.”

There were towels in the corner of the cabin.  Sveta grabbed them and I began using them to staunch the bleeding.  It wasn’t enough.

“They left the body like this, punishing me because I wasn’t being fast enough.  I couldn’t bear to sit here and feel a body starve to death, can’t disconnect my power from victims like this.  They won’t let me.  I pulled until the wires did enough damage.  If I’d just waited twenty minutes…”

“Stay strong,” I said.  “Stick this out.”

“Can’t hear you,” he said, sounding far away.  “I feel like I lose a little piece of me every time one of these bodies gets discarded.”

The wires were in the way.  I reached out, activating my forcefield for just a moment, so I could wrench them, tearing them from where they’d been lashed.  A floorboard broke to my right.

It was easier when the wires were removed, but there were some that were acting as tourniquets.  It was hard to know which was which, so I focused on the ones that were scraping bone.

The others arrived.  Marquis, Cryptid in camouflaged human form, Lookout and Capricorn.  No Lord of Loss- he was too big for the room.

It was Marquis who rushed to the dying man’s side.  I felt an anxious stab in my chest as I saw the angle of his head, the way he tied his hair back and secured it with a loop of bone.  His expression, which looked entirely as serious as the situation warranted, yet seemed lacking in something- in light.

I saw her in it.

His tools were cruder, but they were tools.  He helped Sveta cut the wires, and then began to work on the open wounds, sealing them in complex bone encasements.

“They’re using me,” the bleeding man said.  “They got me.  I’m a way of passing messages between dimensions, and a tool, a weapon.”

Marquis redoubled his efforts.

I looked away, acutely uncomfortable, then stood, because looking away wasn’t enough.

I’d done what I could, and my presence by the man only made it harder to give care.  I kept an eye out for where I could jump in, grabbed one or two things to hand them over- like the scissors on the desk.

The man went on, and I tried to focus on the words.  “The war is a distraction.  It pulls us away from the city and away from things that matter.  They’re after all the groupings of capes.   The big teams, the places capes rally.  They want Goddess, and they’re going to go after her when they’re strong enough.”

“Who are they?” I asked.  “Is it the same people who attacked the portal?  Earth Cheit?”

“Can’t hear.”

“Cheit!” I raised my voice.

“Not Cheit.  That’s- distraction.  Ah.”

There was a pause so long I thought the man had died and Kingdom Come had gone.

Cryptid was now giving his assistance on the medical front.  He seemed to know more than I do when it came to that.

I glanced at the desk.  Everything was missing, shredded.

I opened drawers, found nothing.

When we left with our victim, I doubted I’d get to come back and investigate.  Not tomorrow.  Stuff would change.  Lord of Loss or Marquis would do their own investigation, or use someone like Spruce.

Between the cabin wall and the board at the far right of the desk, was a shitton of dust, with some discarded tissues and food particles.

I used the wretch and shoved the desk away from the wall by a foot.  Nothing hidden in the debris.  I moved the desk back.

“Let me know if you need help,” I said.

“No need.  He might just live,” Marquis said.  “We’ll need to get him to a hospital soon.”

“Do you need me to fly him?” I asked.

“Better to have him in a truck with me and one of our doctors beside him,” Marquis said.  “If he springs a leak mid-flight, he’ll be gone.”

It was hard to focus on him.  I was glad he was helping and I dreaded that he was here.  He was one step removed from her, and my head wasn’t in a rational place.

Books.  My bookshelf had been my refuge, and this place had some of its own.

Most of the books had been damaged or abused by the the transition from Bet to Gimel to N, presumably.  They showed age in the same way a heavy smoker might be forty but look sixty.

There were empty shelves on the far left bookshelf, but no dust on the shelf.  I checked, and I found something similar to what I’d seen by the desk at the back.  Dust, garbage… and papers.  I seized papers.

Some financial things.  Some medical.

And one that the woman probably would have wanted to bring with her.  I read the banner at the top of the paper.  I was discreet in folding it and pocketing it without Marquis noticing, before continuing my search.

“We’re here with the truck!” a man shouted from outside.

I offered my one-handed assistance in helping Marquis, Spruce, Cryptid and Capricorn get the man outside without jostling him too much.  We got him into the back of the truck, and Marquis’ people piled in.

The chaos of the moment meant chaos in the moments that followed.  Lord of Loss was sterner than he had been, ordering his own people inside.  It was blood shed on his territory, and the man that had been captured, controlled as a Kingdom Come proxy and left to die had apparently been a citizen.

For our efforts to save him, we got a thank you and an implied suggestion that we make our way back to the station.

Sveta was using a small brush to get blood out of the joints of her costume.  Lookout was with Capricorn and Cryptid.

She hadn’t been inside the cabin, but she must have been at an angle to see what was going on.  A lot of blood and a lot of open wounds and ugliness.  Even with the Fallen camp, we’d kept her clear of a lot of it.

I put my hand on her shoulder.  She looked up at me, solemn.

“You good?”

She smiled and nodded.

“Found this,” I said.  I showed her the paper I’d saved.

She processed it, then realized its meaning.  I saw her eyes widen.

I handed it to the others in turn.

It was my only prize, really.  The other things had been receipts, that I’d left for the others to find.

The name on the banner along the top of the page was the same name as the remote prison for capes that they’d sent Ashley and Rain to.  On the sheet itself, it had been patient numbers, a few months out of date.  Some had been highlighted.

The prison was an area of focus for this clandestine group, and we had people already there.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Torch – 7.8

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

The arrival of Chris’ train at the G-N portal station had Kenzie running off to go get him.  The initial wave of trucks and cargo from the train began to flow from the station and out into Earth N.  I’d seen the process before, but it had been as part of the Patrol block, and I’d usually had duties, or I’d been a part of the convoy.

Sveta sat on the hill, while Tristan stood near me.  There were other people sitting around the slope or hanging around in the shade of the station, but we were mostly clear of eavesdroppers.  It was a question of waiting for a few people to walk away before speaking.

“Chris and I had a disagreement,” I said.  I watched the trucks go.

“I was wondering why you looked pissed,” Tristan said.  “I didn’t want to say anything.”

“He didn’t like that I showed up unannounced.”

“I’ve run into that,” Tristan said.  “He complains if we turn up unannounced, he complains if we don’t invite him to stuff like our group’s visit to the Wardens’ headquarters, when we were asking about hiring a lawyer and sounding people out on Hollow Point.  I think he likes complaining.”

It bummed me out a bit that Cedar Point’s name hadn’t survived, with all we’d done.

“It wasn’t complaining.  He was pissed,” I said.  “I’m telling you guys so you know.  He might be bothered enough to bring it up.”

“How pissed was he?” Tristan asked.  “Scale of one to ten?”

“Pissed enough to weaponize things I told the group in confidence.  Seven?”

“Okay,” Tristan said.  “Did you get the rage vibe from him?  Do we need to disinvite him from the meeting with Lord of Loss?”

“That’s- no,” I said.  “My first instinct is no, we don’t, but I don’t want to go by first instincts only.  The situation made it hard to tell if it was lingering rage, and… the more I try to find words, the less sure I am about disinviting him.”

Sveta was quiet, “It sets a bad precedent.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Shutting people out, and I don’t think he’d forgive it very easily.  I could have handled it better, but Chris isn’t the sort of person I really ‘get’.  I feel like every time I find out something more, I just have more questions.”

“I think if you asked him,” Sveta said.  “He’d say you don’t need to get him or get answers.  You should just respect his boundaries and let him do what he wants.”

“People in his day to day are scared of him,” I said.  “Teachers, kids.  I need some answers, just to make sure I’m not standing around doing nothing while missing something important or dangerous.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  She looked up at me, and said with grave sincerity, “I totally, one hundred percent get that.”

“You’re thinking about the Irregulars?” Tristan asked.

“Yeah,” she said.  “It gives me the worst feeling, when I look back on things in retrospect.  So many stupid things we should have paid attention to.  So many.  We let a lot of things slide because we were worried about how it would change the tone of things, and because of friendship, or what we thought was friendship.  I’d rather see people get upset now than have it all go wrong later.”

“Yeah.  We’ve talked about that,” Tristan said.  Then, like he was remembering I was there, he turned to me.  “Both of our teams capsized.  We’ve done the whole thing before, where you go out, get drunk, and rant about the past-”

“No we didn’t,” Sveta said.

“Let me finish.  We did it without the drinking part, I mean.”

“Oh.  Yeah,” Sveta said.  “I guess.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “A good rant can be healthy.  Get it out.”

“We’ve done that.  The drunken bemoaning of existence, without being drunk,” she said.

“I wasn’t able to talk,” I said.

“Still.  You worked that keyboard.”

I shrugged.

“I’m trying to be balanced about this,” she said.  “I made this mistake once, and I don’t want to be blind, but I feel like pushing too hard or prying might make things break down, and that doesn’t make it better.  I’m not going to say you’re doing it wrong, Victoria.”

“I don’t know if I’m doing it right.”

“Yeah.  But… you do what feels right, because I don’t know if I’m doing it right either.  I want to help people stay together.  That means protecting each other, being supportive, that’s my priority.  We have to know each other, that’s part of it, and it’s the part where I don’t necessarily sympathize with Chris.”

“I don’t want to repeat my error from earlier and pry,” I said, checking to see if Kenzie and Chris were coming.  “But… has he talked about his background?  His deal?”

“No,” Tristan said, at the same time Sveta shook her head.

“Some,” Sveta said, “But hypotheticals.  He’s real about the stuff like the center he’s living at now, and his health issues, his power, but even that’s…”

“Yeah,” Tristan said.

“He doesn’t leave you very sure about it,” I said.

Sveta nodded.  “I’m not going to pry or dig, but I am going to pay attention.  Not just talking about Chris, for the record.”

“I’m not good at that,” Tristan said.  “I hear you two.  I get it, we made a mistake with Ashley.  That hard conversation with Rain took far too long, he left, and he didn’t really reconnect until the whole thing with the Fallen camp ended… and he went straight from there to jail, pretty much.  Ashley… I felt like utter shit, sitting there in the pre-court thing, knowing we put her in that position.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “Definitely.  Especially when I helped set her up to do it and then made her turn herself in, too.”

“She turned herself in herself,” I said.  “She went to the patrol block.”

Sveta shrugged.

“I get it,” Tristan said, repeating himself.  “We have to watch out that it doesn’t happen again- that’s why you’re talking about this stuff, right, Victoria?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “A part of it.  I think it’s what Jessica wanted from me.”

“So I’m not good at that,” Tristan said, repeating himself.  His fist smacked down into the flat of his palm.  “I want to chase the parts where we click as a team.  We had a few of those good moments.  If we have more, that could be where the walls come down, or where the team members who don’t click.”

“You’re reminding me of Kenzie’s seating chart,” Sveta said.

“Seating?” I asked.

“Figuring out the group relationships,” Sveta said, smiling.  “It started out normal, having to do with who sat where in the group therapy session, but she kept working on it.”

“It looked like a tinker blueprint at one point.  Mrs. Yamada ended up banning the chart and the topic of the chart from the room,” Tristan said.  “If you ever need to distract her from something, you can mention the chart.  She’ll talk about it until someone stops her.”

“She’s not a dog you distract with a toy,” I said.

“No, but-” Tristan said.  His head turned.  “Ey!  Taking your time!”

Chris and Kenzie were approaching, as part of a loose crowd of sixty or so people.  Most of those people wore work clothes.

“We had to wait for trucks and stuff to unload,” Kenzie said.  She wore a navy gingham dress with a folded white collar, and a heart hairpin I’d seen before.

“If you wanted me to show up sooner, you should have sent your messenger sooner,” Chris said.  “You were talking about me?”

“I mentioned we’d argued,” I said.  “That led to talks about group dynamics.”

“What?” Kenzie asked.  “Argue?”

“Did you mention that you threatened to kill me, or do worse?” Chris asked.

What?” Kenzie asked.

“No,” I said.  “Because I didn’t.  I said the kind of thing you were talking about-”

I stopped myself.

“Go on,” he said.

“Can I bring this up here?  Do you want to rehash this with these guys here, or do you want to let this be?”

“Go on.  I really want to hear how you justify it,” he said.

“Going to Bonesaw for help before you went to me, out of spite?  That’s the kind of thing that gets you killed or worse.”

He stared at me.

“I can’t remember how I worded it, but that was not what I meant.  I’m sorry, if it came across that way.  I’ve hurt people badly enough to risk killing them, like Valefor, but I don’t set out to kill.  I- I definitely don’t set out to do worse than kill people.  That’s not me.”

He continued to stare, until Kenzie elbowed him.

“Don’t do that,” he told her.

“Say something to her.”

“I’m not cool with you showing up.”

Chrisss,” Kenzie said.

He glared at me.  She elbowed him again.

“Stop, Kenz.  And I believe you,” he told me.  “I buy it.  That in no way is me being okay with you showing up.  I’m still ticked.”

“That’s fine,” I said.

“You and I can talk about it after,” Tristan said.  “You’ve had a few times where you were incommunicado.  We had to do something.”

“I could do a phone thing,” Kenzie said.

“You’re doing too many things,” I told Kenzie.

“It’s important that we can stay in touch, though,” she said.

“There’s got to be a simpler answer or policy than you going the extra mile every time,” Tristan said.  “Chris, your phone isn’t working at all?  Was it an outage?”

Chris shrugged.  “It wasn’t charged.  I was stressed, so I went out last night, went to the middle of nowhere, changed to Quiet Awe.  I put on some music and lounged, tried to shut out the world.  I spent too long like that, changed back by accident, went straight back to that form.  Came back at one in the morning, probably, power was off, I couldn’t charge it.”

I met Sveta’s eyes.  Quiet Awe didn’t sound like a derivation of anger.

“We’ll figure something out,” Tristan said.

“Alright.  Are we changing here?” Chris asked.

“We’ll go down into the town, find a spot, and then change out,” Tristan said.  “We’ll stand out less, and there won’t be as many cameras as there are here at the station.”

I turned my head to look.  Kenzie pointed at two.

“Don’t point at them,” Chris admonished her.

“They’re so shoddy it’s barely worth calling them cameras.  I’m scrambling our faces so they can’t track our secret identities.”

“We’ve got two team members without secret identities,” Chris said, looking at Sveta and I.  “And Tristan looks so much like a hero out of costume that it doesn’t fool anyone.”

“No I don’t,” Tristan said.

“You look like Legend probably did when he was a teen, except light brown with a modern haircut.”

“I don’t-” Tristan started.  He stopped as the last few passengers of the train and the people who were picking them up emerged.  As the crowd fanned out, they approached the point they might be in earshot.

“You know it’s true,” Chris said.

“Whatever.  Let’s disappear into this crowd and find a place to change.”

“I’ll try to scramble recording devices pointed our way,” Kenzie said.

The road down to the settlement proper was a bit sloped, so I gave Sveta my good arm to help her keep her footing.

Earth N was not a very populated Earth.  This settlement and the surrounding area were more or less it, with a few stations at key points around the globe, harvesting the most accessible resources that lined up with what we knew about from other Earths.

But with roughly one hundred and fifty thousand people settled on this world, ninety percent of them within twenty-five miles of the portal, it didn’t take much clout to control it.  Lord of Loss and his clique managed that.

Things weren’t as nice as they were in the megalopolis.  Roofs were often corrugated steel.  I saw houses with additions that were plywood with plastic tacked to them.  Others were best described as cabins.  It marked a stark contrast from a city where vast quantities of materials had apparently been arranged and even brought to key locations before Gold Morning.

The stores were basic, and any design beyond the bare bones had clearly been tacked on after the fact.  A long lineup outside of a larger building made me think of a soup kitchen or other kind of rationing.

There were two people with visible injuries in the loose crowd that we’d joined.  People from the train station.  They were young, they might have been friends, and one sported a black eye, while the other had a cut on his cheek that extended to his ear.  The injuries hadn’t seen enough attention- left to heal with the weight of the skin pulling the injury open, it would scar into an open line.

Both those two and roughly half of the remainder looked like they were denizens of Earth N.  Their clothes and hair reflected the same standards and ideas that the buildings did.  A lot was being done with very little, and that little was already a bit worn around the edges, strained by hard living and a lack of infrastructure.  I saw clothes which were clearly less than two years old, yet worn.  I imagined they had been washed with hard scrubbing in water outdoors.

“Fresh air,” Kenzie said.  She drew in a deep breath.  “It’s so nice.”

“It’s not like we don’t have fresh air in our neighborhoods,” Chris said.  “There’s barely been an opportunity to screw anything up.”

“It’s still nice.”

I wasn’t sure I agreed.  I’d been here before, but it had been in the winter, and I barely recognized the place now.  I’d seen other places like it, and it had always felt strained and desperate.

Sveta squeezed my arm.  I looked past her to Tristan, and I saw that he was indicating a route.  Off the road, into the midst of houses and high fences.

We found a spot where the fences met in a broad ‘v’ shape, not really in full view of anyone standing at the main road looking down our way.  Tristan and I put down our bags.  Kenzie began unrolling the sleeves of her costume from beneath her dress to her ankles, kicking off the shoes she wore over her costume footies.

“I’ll wait,” Chris said.  “I’ll use this spot when you’ve vacated.”

“I can leave you a cloaking thing, if you’re worried about dropping trou in public,” Kenzie said.  She messed with her phone, and the cloaking dropped away from the bag she wore at her back.  Her helmet hung from the outside of the bag, her gloves stuffed inside it.

“Sure,” Chris said.  “So long as you can’t watch me through it.”

“Stop saying that!  I wouldn’t!”

I put my breastplate on, strapping the two individual halves, which were curved out so I could bend over without it being too rigid.  The upper twenty-five percent of the armor was already attached to the upper half, needing only to be pressed against my collarbones and the inside of each shoulder.  The front corner of my hood that might have clipped up beneath my chin hung over most of that band of armor.

The spiked attachments on hood, sleeve, the center-front of the breastplate, and at either side of my boots were last.

I had only one good arm, which meant that I was only about as fast as Tristan putting on his whole set of armor, and I was only doing my armor and decorations over top of the costume-ish outfit.

“What form are you doing, Chris?” Kenzie asked.

“Strained Peace,” Chris said.

Strained peas?  As in baby food?” Kenzie asked.

“You know how blind people can train their minds to emphasize their hearing?” Chris asked.  “Well, you’ve done the opposite.  You’ve stared so much at your cameras and screens that your ears stopped working.”

“Ha ha,” she said.

“Made worse by you being a dolt.”

Kenzie smiled.  “So harsh.  Is peace on the awe or happiness line?”

“Happiness,” Chris said.

“Why ‘strained’?” I asked.

Chris shot me a hostile look.

I didn’t press, leaving him be.  I finished sorting out the straps of my sling and thought about getting a cape that would cover the one arm.

I hadn’t ever really loved full capes, though.

“Strained is a modifier for forms, it goes around the circle with Repressed Anger, Tense Acceptance, Paralyzed Fear, Stifled Disgust, yadda yadda,” Chris said.  He took Kenzie’s cloaking device.  “All of which are the bases but with faster reactions and movements in a pinch, like I’m made of elastic bands that are all taut, ready to release, or I’m a gun with a trigger that needs only a light touch to fire.”

“That’s not a good thing,” Capricorn said.

“It’s fine.  Faster action, lower stamina, lower strength, more durability.  Changes the abilities that manifest.  Strained Peace doesn’t really have much in the way of special features, so there isn’t a trigger to pull.”

“Why choose it then?” Sveta asked.  She’d attached the last of her stylized additions to her exterior.  They’d been painted, much as she had, but it was the same mandala-style effect, where some hadn’t been filled it, and the absence looked like a conscious choice.

“Because we don’t want a fight and peace works for that,” he said, and the easygoing tone from before was gone. “I need to get it out of the way, it works.  Trust me when I say it works out.”

Sveta put up her hands in surrender.

“We’ll give you a minute,” Capricorn said.  He stuffed everyone’s bags into the big gym bag.

“I’ll hold that,” Chris said.

“Sure,” Tristan said.

Chris held up the tinker device Kenzie had given him, and hit the button.  The camouflage effect crept over him.

The guy with the black eye from the crowd was hanging out at the front of a store, talking to two others, and he saw us as we emerged from the residential side road.  He wasn’t the only one who seemed to notice, but he was the most blatant about his reaction.  Instant hostility.  A glare.

Even the low-level hubbub of the street and the workers on the street changed, conversations dropping in volume, others stopping talking to see why.

“Wow,” I said, under my breath.  I kept my back straight, my apparent confidence up.  It would not be a good look if we gave the wrong impression and Lord of Loss’ town picked a fight with us before our meeting.

“I remember times like this with the Irregulars,” Sveta said.  “Especially when we turned up without warning.  Except you guys aren’t Case Fifty-Threes.”

“Bit of a gut punch,” Capricorn said.

“Yeah,” Sveta said.

“I’d say we get out of here, but we can’t bail on C,” Capricorn murmured.  “I feel like this is going to become something.”

“Anyone noticing the injuries?” I asked.

The one with the shiner was the most obvious and the closest to us.  The silence on the main street had drawn a few people outside, and it had brought others from side areas and streets.  A dozen of them had their wounds.  Arms and face more than legs.  Some skinned knees.

Defensive wounds.

Looksee raised her hand, giving the crowd of stone-faced glares a little wave.

“Easy does it,” Sveta said.

Looksee dropped her hand.

Then, because the last thing we needed was a monster showing up, Chris materialized, dropping the cloak.

The indulgence form had apparently been derived from the happiness line, as far as I understood things.  There were similarities.  The form was tall, but where the other one had been broad in the gut, shaped like a teardrop with a tiny head and thick elephantine limbs, this one was… shrouded.  What I thought was a shawl at first was loose skin with no pigment, draped in a fashion that resembled a hooded robe.  Hair and a whisp of what should have been a beard hung down, long and growing as I watched, the length of hair and the hood hiding his face, even though he loomed a foot or two above the tallest person present.  The long, narrow limbs and frame within that shroud were gaunt, and stood tense with muscles strained and tendons standing out.  By the way the joints came together and the weight of the skin shroud, it was forced into a permanent crouch, hands bent in and back toward the body, head bent and turned toward the ground.

The teardrop shape remained, but it was well hidden.

“Looks good,” Looksee said.

It was something.  But Chris’ ‘peace’ form had raised the local tensions to a palpable degree.

A long finger with a raw nail bed instead of a fingernail reached down into the dirt of the road, scratching out two words.  The red nail bed had grit caked in it when the finger came away.

Where to?

“We’re supposed to head east from the camp,” I said.

“He said it was a ten minute walk away, past a hill,” Capricorn said.

‘Peace’ Chris turned his head slowly, until he looked down on Capricorn.

I could imagine his expression, were he normal.  The unimpressed glare.  This form lacked in stamina, he’d said.

“What were you going to do?” Capricorn asked.  “Not change?”

The ‘peace’ form turned to look in the direction we were supposed to go.

The robe billowed out slightly, puffing.  The form’s head seemed to lack a mouth, or even any clear features besides maybe eyes and the waves of brown hair that hung in front, but something in the midst of the shroud had served for the exhalation.

I could have flown, but as I’d observed a few days ago, flying had a way of disconnecting me from things.  I floated alongside the group.

“You saw the injuries?” Capricorn asked, when we were a little ways away, walking along dirt and grass with rocks at irregular intervals.  Up to a point, trees had been cut down to use for the building of the settlement on this side of the G-N portal.  Past that point, the woods were dense.  From the looks of it, we wouldn’t necessarily get that far out.

“Defensive,” I said.

“Soldiers?” he asked.

“Soldiers would have run off to tell their bosses,” I said.  “Made a phone call, even texted.  They didn’t.  They didn’t run, they didn’t care enough to challenge or confront us.”

“Are they not locals then?” Sveta asked.

“They’re local.  The clothes,” I said.  “They fight, but they’re not soldiers.”

“Lord of Loss might have a situation going on,” Capricorn said.  “It could be tied to our suspicions.  Another faction in his territory.”

“If it is tied to it, he can’t not know about it,” I said.

“It’s times like this that I feel really dumb,” Looksee said.  “I don’t pay much attention to any of that stuff.  Um.  But someone did make a call, though.”

“What call?” Capricorn asked.

“Uh, from the city to one of the local towers,” Looksee said.  She pointed off into the distance, where something I’d thought was a tree stood out against the sky.  “This is unfamiliar ground so I don’t know where call went after the tower got it.”

“Probably someone calling Lord of Loss to let us know we turned up,” I said.

“Or, if the portal attackers are really here, they’re passing on word,” Sveta murmured.

“Looksee, You mentioned the cameras at the station,” I said.  “Did you tap into them?”

“I did, but it wasn’t me being sneaky, I swear.  I was bored, because Mr. Peaceful here was being so slow and we were waiting so long.

Chris moved, skin billowing around him as he dropped into a crouch with a jerky snap, then moved forward with another, until his face was a few feet from Looksee’s.

She barely flinched.  “Yeah.  You were slowwww.”

He straightened, standing taller than he had been before turning away.

Looksee reached out to pat his leg.

“The cameras?” I asked.

“I was curious about them because they looked analog and low rez, and I was wondering if they were trying to be clever and hiding something fancier.  Nope.  They’re just crummy cameras that were out of date when I was in diapers.”

Chris turned her way.

“Can’t talk, huh?  Bet you had a line,” she said.  To me, she said, “Four-eighty-p, black and white, record to tapes in the station that have zero security.  They write over the old tape after an hour and a half.”

“Can you use them?” I asked.  “Keep an eye out for anyone running for it while our backs are turned?”

Looksee nodded.

“Good,” I said.

We reached the top of the hill.  The wind was cool as it blew past us.  The sky above was blue, the sun shining, but it didn’t penetrate the ambient cold air.  At most, I just felt cooler when we were in areas of shadow, like the side street and beneath the buildings.

The area was a dozen buildings framing a kind of cul-de-sac, where a lot of people had gathered on the road.  More uniformity to the materials and construction than we’d seen in the last spot.  No road ran from it to elsewhere- there was only the road to it, as if it was a defined endpoint.

There was a nicer house at the far end.  I could guess who lived there.

The response to our arrival at Lord of Loss’ site was as cold as the send-off from the portal station had been.  Every step of the way, things caught my attention.

A lot more injuries.  More defensive wounds.  The injured were corralled, kept in groups with capes or intact soldiers in front of, behind, and to either side of each group.  They kept their eyes down.

We walked down the hill.

Nursery and Lord of Loss were standing at the path leading between the manor and the dirt road.  Lord of Loss was in his human form, massive.  There were a lot of people standing to either side of the path we had to travel to reach them, and he wasn’t walking forward to meet us halfway.

“Be careful,” Sveta murmured.

Capes aplenty.  I recognized a few.  Bitter Pill was one.  No Prancer, and none of the hyperviolent capes I’d come to think of as being the red-tagged, like the old capes on the parahuman online site who’d had the ‘do not approach’ banners across their profile.

Not that anyone here looked friendly.

Several in dark clothes with loose threads and designs bleached into them, like fishbones and snakes.  Teenagers, at a guess.  They stood opposite a couple in white armor with crisp black designs painted on them.  That armor hadn’t seen a fight in recent memory.  Moons and astrological symbols.

Three men were staring us down.  They wore simpler costumes with maximized utility between the belts, pouches, and bandoleers they’d strapped on.  As I walked past, I realized that they weren’t focused on me, on Chris, or Looksee.

Sveta was between me and Capricorn.  They were looking at her or him.

Not her, I realized, as I saw past the eye-slit in Capricorn’s helmet and saw his sharp focus on those same men.  Sveta didn’t seem to notice them.

Okay.

We walked further.  We were effectively surrounded, because the people we’d left behind us were free to come at us from behind, and there were plenty to either side of us.

Lord of Loss raised his hand, indicating for us to stop.  We stopped, and Chris immediately dropped into a sitting position, hunching over.

A hundred feet still separated us.  A man stepped out of the crowd to our right, bearded, with parted hair, a hard mask and crisp clothing- a button-up shirt that was rolled up to the elbows, and a vest.  He walked with his hands clasped behind his back.

“Any guns?” he asked.

“Flash gun,” Looksee said.  “Nonlethal.”

“Would you set it down on the ground?” he asked.  “It’s symbolic.”

She looked at us for confirmation, got a nod from Capricorn, and then drew the gun and set it down on the dirt road.  A little too fast a draw- in another situation, that kind of recklessness might have provoked a reaction.

“I’d like to use my power to search you,” he said.  He held up his hand, and a shape manifested in his palm, swelling to take the form of something that looked like an origami onion, the layers folding back and into themselves.  “I would sweep it over you and become aware of anything on your persons.”

“No effect?” Capricorn asked.

“No,” the man said.

“I’m fine,” Capricorn said.

“No objection,” I said.

“I’m pretty much all armor,” Sveta said.  “It contains me.”

“That’s fine.  Can I look?”

She nodded.

“I’ve got more stuff,” Looksee said.  “I can put it on the ground.”

“Please.”

She began unloading.  The heart hairpin, phone, batteries, the eyehook, the projector disc.

“And you?” the bearded cape asked Chris.

Chris shook his head.

Kenzie put a pair of the little boxes like the ones she’d used to hack the keypad lock on the ground.

“I must insist.  I could do a physical, full body search if you wanted,” the bearded man said.  “You would have to adjust your robe.”

“It’s skin,” Capricorn said.

“Ah.  So it is.”

Lord of Loss and the parahumans of Earth N were patiently waiting while we were investigated by this man.

Dangerous territory indeed.  If they took issue with us, we wouldn’t have a great shot.  We’d been promised safety, but promises were thin, and at least a few people here could have grudges against us.

“I must insist I be allowed to search you.  I’m circumspect.  I’ll only tell Lord of Loss what he needs to know.  What I want is for this to go smoothly.”

Chris hesitated.

What the hell were you doing, Chris?

Chris nodded, giving his assent.  He stooped down lower, head bent.

The origami onion unfolded into a whirling frame of lines and flat planes.  Where it passed over Chris’ leg, the leg on dirt, the dirt settled, flatting down, like there was a gravity or space warping effect in play.

Meanwhile, Looksee was putting a pair of pens, a few marble-sized metal spheres, and a glass case with what looked like three memory cards inside it down on the ground.

The man with the beard and parted hair walked behind Chris, the effect sweeping up and down Chris’ back.  He searched Chris’ midsection.

“There we are.  I see the shape of things, now,” the man with the parted hair murmured.  His eyes were alive behind the hard ivory-white mask.  “I can extend you a measure of trust, I think.  Do us a favor and stay still.  Give us no reason to be concerned.”

Chris was still for a moment, before nodding slowly.

The man moved from Chris to Looksee.  The process was faster- a quick up and down.

From Looksee to me.  I felt my costume rustle against my skin as it swept over me, my hood moved.  The effect passed.

Then Sveta.  He made no remark or comment before moving on to Capricorn.

Capricorn barely paid attention to the power that was sweeping over him.  He was focused wholly on the three men that had been staring at him earlier.  They’d moved from their position, approaching Lord of Loss, and were now leaning close, exchanging words at a low volume.  Nursery had stepped away to give the three and Lord of Loss some measure of privacy.

“Good.  Leave your things where they are and remain still,” the man said.  “Do you have a name?”

“Beg pardon?” Capricorn asked.  He tore his eyes away from the three men and Lord of Loss, all of whom were looking at us.

“A name.  So I can announce you.”

The three men stepped back and walked away, in the direction of the side of the largest house.

“Oh, um, oh Jesus,” Capricorn said.  “No.  We’ve been putting it off for forever, it’d be easier if you asked us to go pick a fight with Goddess or something.”

“We’re not asking for that,” the man said.

“You want our cape names, or group, or-”

“All of the above,” the man with the parted hair said.  “It matters.  This is a place where formality, titles, and roles matter.  The name you choose is important.”

“Can you give us a moment?” Capricorn asked.

“I can,” the man said.  He glanced back at Lord of Loss, then over at the crowd.  No statement to any grand effect, but the point was clear.  This was a large crowd and it would be poor form to keep them waiting.  “I’ll be waiting.  Signal me when you’re ready, and then announce yourselves.”

“Talk to me,” Capricorn said, before the man was even gone.  “Fast.”

“We have you and Looksee hammered out,” Sveta said.

“No,” Looksee said.  “Um.  I’ll be Lookout.  Change me to Lookout, as an inside joke, because of what he said, after the Fallen thing.”

“Lookout?” Capricorn asked.

Beside Lookout, Chris was clasping his hands together, head tilting high with hair falling across his face, like he was praying.  He reached out and gave Lookout a pat on the helmet.

“A bit dark but I’m not going to complain with the time constraint,” Capricorn said.  “Lookout.  Right.  Me, you.  Sveta?”

Sveta said a single word in Russian.  “It wasn’t my first choice, but Weld told me if I didn’t choose, someone would choose for me.  I guess our hands are being forced.  Tress.  Because it sounds pretty, at least.  But call me Sveta when it’s not official.”

Capricorn turned to Chris.

The word was already on the dirt, scratched out.  Cryptid.

No surprise.  It had been the last thing I’d seen on the whiteboard in the hideout, before we’d moved everything out.

They looked at me.

“I’m breaking every single rule,” I said.  “Because it’s a name that needs an explanation, and you’re not supposed to do that.  There’s no time to spell it out.”

“I don’t care,” Capricorn said.  “Out with it.”

“Antares,” I said.

“The heart of the scorpion?” he asked.  When I arched an eyebrow, he said, “I pay attention to stars, and I looked up some when you mentioned you were thinking in that direction.  That wasn’t on my top twenty.”

I nodded.  I had reasons and explanations, but we didn’t have the time, as I’d said.

“I’m not about to complain,” he said.  “Team name.”

“We talked about Defense Mechanism,” Lookout said.

“We said it was too tinkery,” Sveta said.

“I’m not complaining,” Lookout said.  “But I get it.”

“And we’re not very ‘defense’ oriented,” Capricorn said.  “Calling us ‘defense’ when I’m the only defender is like going with mechanism when you’re the only tinker.”

“It’s a little on the nose, by the way,” I said.

“Anything else?” Capricorn asked.

“When we were talking about names in that conversation where Defense Mechanism came up, we mentioned one, and it might be too on the nose, but Swansong liked it,” Lookout said.  “She’s not here right now, but it might be nice if she got a say, and it suits Rain, which would be nice.”

“What was it?” I asked.

“Breakthrough.”

There was a silence.  Capricorn had his arms folded.  The others were quiet.

“At this point, it’s better than no name,” Capricorn said.

“It works with the original focus of cracking the tougher nuts,” I said.

Sveta nodded.

“Let’s do that,” Capricorn said.  He drew in a deep breath and sighed, before turning to face Lord of Loss.  Capricorn gave a nod to the man.

Lord of Loss extended a hand, palm up.  An invitation.

“Team Breakthrough.  Capricorn, Tress, Antares, Lookout, and Cryptid.  We’re here to talk about the state of things, and to see about sharing information.”

Technically, we came to find out about the attack on the portals, but we can’t say that outright.

“Lord of Loss, leader of Earth N,” the man with the parted hair said.  “We welcome you.”

Lord of Loss’ body language was magnanimous, hands spread.  He seemed warm, even, for a giant in ragged armor.  He approached at a walk.  “I’m sorry for the mess.  Things have been chaotic.  I recognize the heroine from the community center.  Antares?”

“Yes.”

“We did that to try and get ahead of what we’re seeing today, serving up a scapegoat.  We had a riot two days ago, because we weren’t able to get out ahead of things or give the masses another sacrifice.”

“It shouldn’t be about sacrifices,” I said.

“It all comes down to blood and bread,” he said.  “With snowfall only fifty or so days from now, we don’t have the bread.  Will the community center and its outcome be a problem?”

I shook my head.  “Not especially.”

“Good,” he said.  “What brought you here, Breakthrough?”

“Can we talk about that alone?  Our team and you?” Capricorn asked.

“I don’t know all of your powers, and I won’t call in any of the expensive favors needed to get that information.  You keep your five.  I’ll keep four I trust.  Fair?”

Capricorn glanced at Sveta, then me.  He gave Lord of Loss a nod.

Lord of Loss selected his people.  The others were dismissed with a wave of the hand.

Nursery had an updated costume, I noted.  It was fitted to her slender frame, a curved golden band at her belly highlighting the slight bump.  She stayed.

Oddly, it wasn’t the professional looking man or woman in the white armor with the sharp designs that were tapped for his retinue here.  He turned to the group of teenagers with the bleached animal designs.  One was asked to stay, a boy with fangs bleached into the black fabric of the bandanna that covered his lower face.

The man with the parted hair, too, stayed.  I thought it might be because he was Lord of Loss’ lieutenant.

He wasn’t.  Lord of Loss turned toward the house behind him, paused, then beckoned.  Another cape stepped out, walking down the dirt path, and joined us.  Most of the others in the area were gone by the time he reached us.  The one with the parted hair stood just behind him, as Nursery and the fang kid stood at either side of Lord of Loss.

Tall, with long brown hair that passed his shoulders, carefully cultivated facial hair, and reading glasses that he looked over most of the time.  He had a billowing shirt that ninety nine percent of people wouldn’t be able to pull off, and tight black jeans tucked into boots.  His fingers had a lot of rings, and another ring hung from a simple leather cord at his neck.

Marquis.  Amy’s bio-dad.  He met my eyes and smiled.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Torch – 7.7

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

I flew down and at an angle, to try to break away, and I felt the near-miss, a rush of air that made my hood flap and my hair fly out in disarray.

That rush was cause for me to change direction.  Evasive maneuvers.

Driving required an expanded awareness of the world.  It was a mode that I presumed could be switched on, and it was a mode that I’d never really mastered.  I’d read that the reason cell phones were so bad for driving was that they pulled the driver out of that mode, into the five by three inch world of the glowing screen.

Flying was another mode-shift, especially when it came to aerial encounters.  To be aware of the above, the below, left, right, forward, back.  Flying typically saw a person flying with their body parallel to the ground, because the ground was worth paying attention to, and because the shape of a human body meant either the ground or sky were faced.  To fly facing forward with the body upright meant flying against the air resistance.

I was too slow to flip over and look up.  I felt contact on my back, pressing against the bag I wore.  My breastplate was in two pieces in the bag, and I felt one piece slide against the other, catching me in one shoulderblade.

Then the pressure, the steady push downward.  If I were a plane, it would have been forcing me into a nosedive.

I flipped around, grabbed Crystal’s ankle, and used the rotation of my body with a yank of my arm to fling her off.  She created a forcefield to ‘land’ on, her back, hands and feet pressing against it, then launched herself at me, breaking the field in the process of the launch.

Experience told me that she’d go for something she could grab, and I hauled my knees in toward my chest to pull my ankles out of the way of her grip.  She passed close behind me, while I somersaulted once in the air.

The weight of my bag meant I had to be careful about getting back to a proper flying posture.

“You’re playing rough today,” I called out.

“I’ve always had to play rough to make a dent,” she said.  “Did that change somehow?”

“Somehow,” I said.  “Catch my bag?”

She held out her hands.  I let my bag slide down my arm and caught the strap, then slung it at her.  She caught it.

“Oof.  That’s heavy.  Somehow?  Bullet in the arm somehow?”

I tried to use my fingers to get my hair sorted out, but it was caught in clothing and tangled around my costume top, hood, and neck.

No, Crystal, not bullet in the arm somehow.

“Yeah,” was all I said.  I flipped upside down, using gravity to help get my hair to a better position, leaving me to just pluck at it where it had looped around things and let it fall ‘up’.

“Remember when my mom would make us do the flying in formation thing?  You, me, Eric, sometimes her?”

“Oh yeah,” I said.  “I’m pretty sure that was my mom’s idea.”

“Really?  Damn it, Aunt Carol.”

“It made flying so boring,” I said.  “Maintain course, fly in parallel, people on the ground might be taking pictures.”

“We had to match speed to Eric, and he was the slowest.  Flying can be so boring even when you don’t have to do that stuff.”

I didn’t feel that way at all.  I’d had issues with flying before, when a panicky feeling would start to set in and the nearest real thing was four hundred feet below me, but flying was totally amazing.

I flipped back around the other way, my hand up at my hair to help guide it.  Crystal was flying in a lazy circle around me while I floated in place.  “Having to fly to match Eric was worse for you than it was for me.”

“Little brothers are a pain,” she said.  She smiled, but it was a little melancholy.

“I meant because you’re fast.”

“But you can do that, see?  You just did this thing, you can turn upside-down and right-side up without getting dizzy.”

“I get dizzy.”

“But you can do that,” she said.  “I have to be careful about any serious flipping, or I’ll be green around the gills for five minutes.”

“I’ll remember that for next time,” I teased.

“Ha ha.  Don’t, or I’ll hurl and I’ll ruin someone’s day down there on the ground.”

“Over water then.”

“Or never.”

“Never?  Come on, you stepped on me.”

“Surfed! I used you as a surfboard.”

“Yeah, that’s so much better.”

“It kind of is.  Besides, no dirt on these feet.”

I fixed my hair and adjusted my outfit.  It was my costume, minus the metal bits, which wound up being somewhat dark, but the white trim, my belt, and the bag helped to break it up.

I reached for my bag, and she handed it over.

“Thank you.”

“You mentioned you didn’t have long before we had to go in separate directions,” Crystal said.

I pulled out my phone.  The map was the first thing that came up.

“I overshot,” I said.  “I have to fly back the way we came.”

“I’m sorry I can’t help with the move.”

I shook my head.  “Duties.  I get it.  I don’t have much anyway, and I can call dad.”

“It might be a little while before we cross paths.  Stuff’s going on.”

“I know.”

“I wish I could tell you more.”

“I know.”

“If you changed your mind and wanted to stay, you’d have my place all to yourself.”

“It’s your place,” I said.  “It’s you.  I need a place for me.  I need to do something for me.”

“That sounds good,” she said.

“Though it is technically someone else’s place.”

“Take care of yourself until I get back,” she said.  She flew a quarter-circle around me, as if flitting around and fretting were the same thing.  “I worry.”

“I worry about you,” I said.  “This classified mission to places unmentioned.”

“It’s not classified, I’m just… not supposed to talk about it.  Because of orders.”

“It’s classified.”

“They haven’t used that word.”

“Be safe,” I said.

“I’ll try.”

She gave me a hug, coming in from the side so as not to jostle or bump the sling.

We parted, and I flew backward, watching as she flew away, until she was just a speck in the distance.

I put my phone away.  Now that I wasn’t being bullied mid-flight by my big cousin, I was free to keep an eye on where I was going.  The portal slashing through Norfair was one thing – I termed it a ‘slash’ because it was thinner than some of the others.  There were more clouds in the sky on the far side.  I flew over it, giving it a wide berth to be safe.

Past the portal, the endless sea of city was harder to navigate.  I looked for landmarks.  The financial buildings with the shopping center we’d been in yesterday was a new one for me.  Kenzie’s area was a bit to the north of it.  Norwalk.

I kept an eye out for and found the Norfair community center.  I knew the location, and the yellow tarps that were still around the damaged portions of the building were very visible from the air, especially given its relative proximity to the water.  It had been one thing I’d kept an eye on on my prior flights across the Megalopolis.

The Norfair community center was the middle ground between Norwalk and Fairfield.  Play structures of painted wood and bars were a good clue I was in the right place.  The building from above resembled what I’d seen with a check online.

I landed a few blocks away and walked the rest of the way.

Kids were out and playing, many wearing hooded sweatshirts or jackets.  A handful of adults were out, spread out to see more of the play area.

I approached the fence.  Kids saw me, and an adult took notice.  An older woman, with gray hair and clothes of the super comfortable, easy sort that fit a barely mobile ninety year old, rather than what I presumed was a seventy year old.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“I’m here about Chris Elman.”

She pointed, “Talk to her.  She knows him.”

I walked along the fence until I reached a woman who was handling some of the five to eleven year olds at the edge of the sandbox.  They looked like a pretty vicious bunch.

She was of Middle-eastern descent, with makeup I might have deemed ‘evening’ makeup for going to a club if I’d worn it – very distinct eyeliner, eyeshadow, and bold lipstick that would have stood out in dim lighting.  She made it work.  Her clothes were nice- a red dress with a leaf pattern at the hem, on the folded collar with the decorative edge, and her sleeves.

At a glance, she seemed to be the youngest adult in the yard.

“Yes?” she asked.  However young she was, by the stern tone alone I could imagine she was the one I would have wanted to cross least if I were ten years younger.

“I’m looking for a kid I volunteer with.  Chris Elman?”

Her expression changed.  She pointed at one of the kids.  “Skye, don’t be a brat.  Play on your own for a bit.”

That order given, she approached the chain-link fence.

“Chris Elman?”

“He lives here, right?”

“You don’t sound sure.” She was roughly my age and it was the kind of voice that made me think ‘mama bear’.

“He’s… kind of the kind of kid who doesn’t leave you feeling very sure about anything,” I said.

She paused, then smiled.  “Yes.  He is.”

“I tried to call him, but there wasn’t a response.  I know some of the cell towers have been down, so I thought I’d check in.”

“We’ve had outages.  Not as bad as some areas.  That could be it, but you could have waited and tried again, instead of coming from…?”

“Bridgeport, for now.  I kind of wanted to-” I hesitated.  “-make sure everything was okay.”

“It’s hard to say anything that wouldn’t be construed as a breach of his trust,” she said.  “I’m one of the few adults he seems to be willing to tolerate.”

Maybe because you’re pretty, I thought.  Then I thought again.  Chris seemed like the type to prefer a hard-nosed adult he could predict and rely on over the friendly sort.  Maybe it was both.  “It’s a sensitive boundary, apparently.  I don’t want either of us to cross it.  Also, behind you.”

One of the girls was holding a boy down and spitting repeatedly in his face.  Both kids seemed to be seven or so.

“Skye!” the woman barked the word, and the kids froze, eyes going wide, with only the culprit ignoring the order, continuing to spit.  She strode over, hauled the little girl off, and pulled her away by one arm.  The little girl fought as well as she was able, not giving an inch.

All fight.  This stern teacher didn’t slow her down or make her hesitate a second.  The yard monitor wrapped the child’s own arms around the child’s stomach, forming an ‘x’, like a straightjacket without the jacket, and knelt, hugging her to secure her in that position.  The kid kicked and threw her weight around.

I had instincts that made me want to hop over the fence and help.  Still, outing myself as a cape at Chris’ home would do more harm than any good I could do here.

“Sorry,” the woman said.

“Not a problem,” I said.

Skye shrieked.

The little girl gradually stopped kicking, as she didn’t get much of a response.  I waited.

“I can send somebody to get Chris, if you like.  He should be in his room, if he didn’t go for a walk.”

“Chris?” Skye asked.

“Yes,” the woman said.  “Why don’t you go, Skye?  You’ll burn off some energy if you run.”

Skye looked between us.  “I don’t want to.”

“Well, you have to, now.  Spitting isn’t allowed, this can be your time out.  You know where his room is?”

Everyone knows,” the girl said.  She was still breathing hard from the struggle.

“Great.  Katie?  Go with Skye.  Hold her hand tight.  Tell Chris his friend is here.”

One of the older girls approached, an eleven-year old.  Skye was released from the hold, and, after hesitating, took Katie’s hand.

“Scoot!” the yard monitor said, and she might as well have cracked a whip, because the kids picked up the pace.

I watched them go into the building.  The yard monitor wiped away most of the dirt that the kneeling and kicking had deposited onto her knees and upper shins.

“They’ll be a minute.  He’s on the top floor and he’s probably in bed.”

“Got it,” I said.  “I’m Victoria, by the way.”

“Val.  We can talk until he arrives.”

“Sure,” I said.  I frowned slightly as I tried to think of how to phrase it.

“Worries, questions, or warnings?” she asked.

“Well, it’s telling that the kids are scared of him, and of the three possible topics you just mentioned, worries were one and warnings were another.”

Val smiled.  “He’s unique.”

“That’s- yeah.  He’s okay?  He’s managing?”

“I only know what I see when he’s here, and he’s mostly here to sleep.  He spends some of his time, ahem, volunteering,” Val said.  Her sharply penciled eyebrow went up.

So she knew about the cape stuff.

I nodded.

“A lot of time is spent on ‘walks’,” she added.

“You’ve brought that up twice.  The walks.”

“We talk about it, among the staff.  It’s been more of an issue lately, and it’s on my mind.  We would call his therapist, but-”

I saw her expression change.

I shook my head.

She nodded.  The fence bent slightly with her weight as she leaned back against it, her back to me while she watched the children.

“I liked her,” Val said.

“She was terrific.  I’m kind of holding out hope, but it’s a horrible mess either way,” I replied.  My voice was a bit hollow as I tried to keep from letting any emotion into it.  “I dunno.  Why is it a big deal?”

“He turned up last night at two-thirty in the morning.  That was the latest he’s ever come in.  We took away privileges, but if we take away one thing he finds other things to do.  We’re divided on whether to be stricter about curfew or to let him be.  I’m one of the only people who gets along with him in some form, which means they keep asking me for my input.  I never know what to say.”

“That’s a tough spot to be in.”

“Was he volunteering?”

“I don’t want to say anything he wouldn’t want me to say,” I said.

“Okay.  Fair.  I didn’t get the impression he was volunteering.  Should we stop the walks?  Let me know if you’re not comfortable saying.”

I wondered if he was going out to change.  “Given his situation, he might need it.  It’s hard to say- it would depend on how he’s doing here.”

Her head turned, and she looked at me with one eye.  “How do you think he’s doing?”

“The kids are scared of him, apparently.”

“He’s odd.  He celebrates being odd.”

It seemed like a tepid response, a half-answer.  “Is that it?  Or is there more?”

“A number of the other teachers and the admin are scared of him,” she admitted.  “I am, sometimes.”

“Why?”

“Because when you see him with any regularity, you notice changes day to day.  He’s had two roommates, and one asked to be moved to another room.  The second was made of sterner stuff, but he gave up after sharing a room with Chris over the late winter and spring.”

“Chris can be tough to get along with,” I said.

“He was scared,” Val said.  “He wasn’t and isn’t comfortable being in the same room as Chris.  He’s been uneasy even when Chris wasn’t present and it has been that way for two months.”

“And now he’s in a room with two beds and no roommate?”

“We’ve had lengthy debates about that too.  We decided it was best to leave him be and let him have his room, at least for now.”

“Makes sense.”

We watched the kids playing for a little bit.  Things were calmer with the spitter on her errand.  The boy had wiped his face and was now carrying on making a dirt pile like nothing had happened.

“There was something else.  We had a theft issue,” Val said.

“With Chris?”

“If this was explicitly Chris, I wouldn’t be comfortable telling you,” she said.  “We had several thefts.  Chris was cleared of wrongdoing for the biggest one.  Some of the children said they had seen him out for a walk at the time it happened.  Chris’ former roommate was one of them.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I’m not sure I follow, then.  He was under suspicion?”

“He was the first many of us thought of.  Some-” she said, and she paused.  She met my eyes and continued talking at a lower volume, “-feel that he is clever enough to get away with it, and they don’t want to clear him of suspicion so easily.”

“A theft of what?” I asked.

“Things from the nurse’s office.”

I winced.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about that, knowing what little I did about Chris.  If it were anything else, I could feel upset about it, but if it was stuff he was trying to keep on hand for his own benefit…

Damn it, Chris.

“Mm hmm,” Val made a noise, as if my silence had confirmed something.  “He leaves you unsure about things.”

Not unsure in the way she might have been picturing.  I was pretty sure he was the culprit.  When it came to blaming him, though… yeah, unsure was a good word.

“You mentioned that you get along with him,” I said.

“As much as anyone does, which isn’t a lot.”

“Some others actually get along with him in a normal-ish way, I think,” I said.  Rain, specifically.  Tristan and Byron, in a way.  Ashley, in a way.  Kenzie, in a love-hate, reaching kind of way.  I hadn’t known him to connect with Sveta.

“Do you?” she asked.

I hesitated, then said, “No.”

“I wish I could give you advice,” she said.  “I don’t think I can without betraying his trust.  There are some things I’ve picked up on that I’ve only ever mentioned to his therapist.”

“No need,” I said.  “I’m trying to find my footing and figure out where things stand before I push or do anything substantial.  Not just with Chris.  This has already been pretty helpful, I think.”

“We have three hundred children here, with some in a partial or daycare-like capacity.  I don’t see him much, I don’t want you to get me wrong.  He’s only here to sleep, play games or get things.  Others take up our attention.”

“It’s understandable.  It sounds like you’re doing the best you can.  The roommate thing is a bit of a worry, though.”

“Yes.”

“And this theft he was cleared of.”

“Yes,” she said.  “With three hundred children here, I have seen a number of types.  Angry children-”

“Skye,” I said.

“The desperate, the scared,” she said.  “I can’t give him a type.  He’s uncanny.  I wish you could solve this riddle for me.”

Uncanny was a really good word, capturing what I’d noticed about Chris when I’d first seen him in Yamada’s group therapy session.  Uncanny in every way.

“I wish I could solve this riddle for me,” I said.  “But when it comes to the volunteer work, he’s helping.  He’s doing good.  That’s something, isn’t it?”

She gave me a curious look.  “Yeah.  Can I pass that along to the staff?”

“Yeah.”

The front door of the building slammed.  Chris stood just beyond the doors, looking for me, finally spotting me.

Oh, he looked pissed.

“I don’t know if it helps with the riddle,” she said.  “But out of all the desperate, and all of the scared, I’ve never had a kid who was so desperate for something, where I couldn’t figure out what they really wanted.”

“I might have ideas,” I said.

“It’s not the obvious answer.  It’s not his health.  That’s the weirder thing.”

I shifted my stance, leaning against the fence, in my best attempt to get a good look at her face.

Chris was stalking toward us, his bag in his hand.  Other kids stared.

“I’ve never had a child to look after who had so many reasons to be scared, who wasn’t.”

“You don’t think he’s scared?” I murmured.

“I used to.  It was camouflaged desperation I saw.”

The talk of feelings and emotions and the tie-in to Chris as a cape made me wonder what that form would look like.  Camouflaged desperation.

Nothing camouflaged at the moment.  Chris marched his way toward us.  He had to dodge around two playing kids who got in his way.  Other kids got out of his way, seemingly by dint of his reputation alone.

“He really is doing good?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “In his grouchy, surly way.”

Chris caught up to us.  He huffed.  “What the hell are you doing here?”

“You didn’t answer your phone.”

“My battery died.  Email is a thing.”

“Internet dropped for this area,” I said.

“You came without being invited.  Not fucking okay!”

“Language,” Val said.  “Keep it clean with the littles around.”

“I hate that word.  Littles.”

“I won’t use it if you stop being bad.”

“You say that like I’m a dog and I crapped in the house.  ‘Bad’.  I’m trying to explain why this isn’t cool.  It’s about respect and boundaries.”

“I’m trying to respect your boundaries,” I said.

“You came here.  From another area entirely.  Without telling me first.”

“No phone, no internet.  There is, as far as I know, no telegraph or established way of transmitting smoke signals,” I said.

“You wanted an excuse to snoop,” he said, “Because you can talk about relationship pillars and trust and respect and caring and boning-”

“Chris,” Val said.

“Or whatever, and you don’t live up to your own freaking hype, Vic!  You want me to show respect and you show me none if you freaking surprise me like this.”

“Something came up.  I came to let you know.”

“Don’t lie to me!” he said.  If he were any angrier, he might have a vein standing out on his forehead.  “You wanted to snoop!  You quizzed Val!  You came to my place and you poked your nose in where it doesn’t belong!”

There were times he seemed so adult, and there were times he seemed so young.  This was the latter.

“Victoria told me you were doing a good job with volunteering-”

“Why tell Val anything!?” Chris asked, voice raised.  “It’s none of your business.”

“She also,” Val said, staying calm, her voice quieter, “Said your breaking curfew shouldn’t be a big deal.  I can tell the other teachers that.”

“I don’t give a shit!  She shouldn’t say anything and you shouldn’t have brought it up!”

“Language,” Val said.  “Break the rules and I’ll go into your room and take the save cards for your consoles.  If you really push it I won’t give them back.”

“I need those.”

“I need you to calm down and be a good example for the little ones.”

I saw as Chris worked to suppress the anger.  Seemingly only now becoming aware that the other kids existed, he looked around before identifying one.  “You.”

“That’s Sam, Chris.  His room is two doors from yours.”

“Whatever.  How long were they talking before I got here?”

“Um,” a boy of about twelve gave the answer.  Sam.  “A while?”

“A while,” Chris said, locking eyes with me.  “Yeah, that’s great.”

“Everyone’s getting together this afternoon,” I said.  “If we waited for the internet to come back or for you to turn your phone on, you might have missed it.  If you don’t like it, keep your phone charged.”

“Okay.  I’m going out, Val,” Chris said.  He stormed past her and toward the gates.  “Don’t go in my room.”

“You don’t get to set rules, Chris,” Val said.

“Don’t,” he said, giving her the evil eye.  “I’ll do my own laundry for now.”

Then he walked away.  It seemed like he expected me to have to follow.

“It was nice talking to you, Victoria,” Val said.  “Maybe we could meet for a friendly coffee sometime.”

Chis wheeled around, ready to jump right into the fray with more incensed words.

Val put her hands up in mock surrender.

It didn’t necessarily help me, but I could almost see why she’d done that.  The push, the pull, letting Chris know she could fight back.

I matched Chris’ pace, which wasn’t hard.  His legs were shorter than mine.

The area was a little spartan, the buildings either the quickly put together sort, of the type that had been most common just after Gold Morning, or the big brick edifices with zero personality.

“What did you talk about?”

“General things.  She hinted that she knows about the cape stuff.”

“Yeah, all the staff do.  It’s a pain.”

“She needed help telling what was you being a troublemaker and what was you being a cape.  I honestly wasn’t sure.  I said I figured it was more the second one.”

“It’s not your job and it’s not your place,” he said.  “You don’t need to check on me.”

“I need to check up on everyone, at least a little,” I said.  “I was too slow with Rain and Ashley.  I worry about you, I’m concerned about Sveta, Byron’s going through a tough time, and Kenzie-”

“You’re skipping Tristan?”

“I’m trying not to skip anyone,” I said.

“You need to focus on people other than me.  Figure out your priorities.  I’m stable.  I’m dealing with my shit myself, I haven’t asked for help, and I’m doing my share.  Compare that to Kenzie, the living personification of a cry for help, in so many ways.”

“I’m having dinner with Kenzie’s family tonight, her place isn’t far from the G-N portal.”

Chris snorted.

“What?”

“Good luck,” he said.  “Have fun.  Come back from that and tell me again how I’m a priority on your watch list.”

“That is not what I said,” I told him.  “I’m trying to keep an eye out for everyone, because that’s what Jessica would have wanted.”

“Yeah, well, what I want is for people to leave me the fuck be.  I’m sticking to the rules-”

“Mostly,” I said.

I could see his expression change, his shoulders rising like steam was building up inside him and it was all he could do to keep it contained.

“Chris,” I said.  “I didn’t go beyond the gates.  Neither she nor I shared anything that you would have wanted kept in confidence.”

“I want everything kept in confidence,” he said.  Steam still building.

“It doesn’t work that way.  I’ve heard from multiple people now that people are scared of you and you’re bending rules.  That warrants someone asking a few mild questions to figure out if everything’s handled.”

“You literally make people afraid of you with your power,” Chris’s words could only be described as a resentful growl.  “Does that warrant someone asking some questions or making sure you’re handled?”

“That’s different.”

“Or did your sister handle you when she tightened-”

I grabbed him by the shoulder, hard, stopping him from walking.

“-the screws?” he finished, locking his eyes to mine.

Cold anger, resentment.  A twist of something that might have been triumph in his eyes.

“You don’t go there,” I whispered.

“You don’t come here!” he said, and a fleck of spit left his mouth as he shouted, to land somewhere on my top.  “I have to fucking balance everything.  I lose my heart or I lose my body.  I’ve gone to the fucking bathroom in the morning and there was blood and meat in the bowl when I was done, and there’s two people I can trust to handle the clog or leave me alone so I can handle it.  She was one of them.  You can’t fuck with that!”

“I didn’t!”

“You did!  You said stuff and you might have changed her mind about stuff and I can’t know how to balance it if I don’t know what was said!  She changes my sheets when there’s fluids on the bed that aren’t blood, semen, piss or shit, no questions asked, because Jessica said it’s under control.  Now Jessica isn’t here and you’re putting ideas in her head and she might change her mind about things!”

“What the hell is going on, Chris, that you’re dealing with stuff like that?  Powers don’t usually tear you up like that.”

I saw a flicker of something in his expression, between the outrage and the reckless madness I’d seen as he talked about fluids and Jessica.

Not his powers?

“None of your business!”

“Is it not your powers?” I asked.  “Someone else’s?  Someone did this to you?”

“None of your business and fuck you!”

“Have you shared about this with the others?”

“No!  Of course not!  Because I don’t fucking want any fucking people fucking with me!”

“Chris,” I said.  “We can’t help you if you don’t share.  I know power stuff, I studied it, I saw a lot of it at the Asylum.”

“Read my lips,” he said, panting as he said it.  Now he had the vein in his forehead.  “I.  Don’t.  Want.  Help.  Not from you.  I want to be left alone and I’m willing to do the hero thing because it works for me.  I’m fine.”

I’m fine, he said.

He stared me down and there was no waver in his eyes, no sign of anything in his face or posture besides repressed outrage.

No fear.

“Are you fine because you’re striking that balance, emotionally?” I asked.  “With the forms?”

“If I want help,” he said.  “If my body starts going screwy and there’s no way to salvage it, I’ll go down to the seven-seven building, near where the Wardens headquarters used to be.”

I shook my head.  “What are you talking about?”

“It’s housing the Wardens used.  Odds are pretty good it’s where your sister’s living.”

My heart sank to roughly where my knees were, but the place it had been wasn’t left intact.  It was cold and empty and sick and painful all at once.

My heart didn’t feel like it was beating right, and my breathing wasn’t right either.

I let go of his shoulder.

I hadn’t wanted to know where she was.

“I’ll go to her for help before I go to you.  I’d go to Bonesaw, if she was still around.”

I shook my head, walking away.

He raised his voice.  “You want to push me!?  I’ll push back!”

I stopped in my tracks.

“That kind of pushing gets you killed,” I said.  “Or worse.”

“Don’t worry.  I’ve got a handle on ‘worse’,” he said.  “I have for a while.  Dying?  Meh.”

The ‘meh’ was both dismissive and an epithet at the same time.

“Fine,” I said.  “You want this?  Go for it.”

“That’s all I ever asked for.”

“But where I draw the line is scaring or hurting others.  Make nice.  Don’t give people a reason to ask questions.”

“Yeah, whatev,” he said.

“And don’t give the other members of the team a reason to grieve.  I don’t want to see Kenzie or Sveta crying over you.”

“I like how you say ‘other’.  I’m off your grieving list?” Chris asked.

“Keep mentioning my sister and you’ll get there.”

He snorted.

Man.  I could have slapped him.

“Train station’s this way,” he said.

“Walk fast.  G-N portal.  The meeting with Lord of Loss is at two.”

I left him to hike it.  I flew.

For his benefit, really.

I landed where the others had assembled.  There was a blown-up image of Tempera and two capes I didn’t recognize printed on the wall of the station.

When we’d passed out the word that the other stations were potentially being targeted, G-N had been one of the stations that had been saved.  I was heartened to see just who had managed it.

I needed a bit of heartening.

It was good to see the other members of the group happy.  Sveta was smiling, and Kenzie was bouncing around while talking to Tristan.

“Chris is on his way.  He caught the twelve-thirty train, it’ll be thirty minutes,” I said.

“Awesome,” Tristan said.  “Listen, because this just came up, and it’s a good opportunity-”

“We were talking back hair,” Kenzie said.

“Yeah,” Tristan said.

“I think if I liked anyone I could like someone with back hair,” Kenzie said.

“No, Kenzie, that’s not okay,” Sveta said.

“But you said you could be okay with it.”

“I said I feel obligated to say I’d be okay with it because my boyfriend has back forks.  And back wires.  He keeps it tidy but it is a place he sometimes has to position loose material.”

“I feel obligated because some of my favorite people in the world had back hair,” Kenzie said.

“Again, please, not okay,” Sveta said.

“Why not!?”

“Because back hair means older, and that’s skeevy.”

“Didn’t the boy Tristan liked have back hair at fourteen?  Fourteen isn’t old.  Well, it is to me, but that’s because it’s-”

“I did not like Jhett Marion!” Tristan said.  “Please.  Let me get a word in edgewise.  I can see where Byron got it wrong, but I liked Tyler Redmond.  He was a senior, he was tall, he had long hair, and he was good at art.  He had a lower back tattoo and no back hair.  I’m not down for that.”

“I’m not down for that,” I said.  “Wax, shave, deal with it somehow.”

“Thank you,” Tristan said.  “I value and appreciate your sanity.”

“I’m not changing my answer,” Kenzie said.

Kenzie and Tristan bickered.  Sveta approached me, leaning into my good arm.  “You okay?”

I shook my head.  I murmured my answer. “Spat with Chris.”

She nodded.  No commentary.

“Can we get some fresh air?” I asked.  “Wait on the other side of the portal?  At least until Chris’ train arrives?”

“I can keep an eye out,” Kenzie said, holding up her phone.  “Oh!  We need to talk about dinner.  I hope this doesn’t run late and we don’t get a mob of assassins or zombies coming after us, because my mom’s making this pasta dish- is pasta okay?”

“Pasta’s great,” I said.  “Keeping an eye out is great.  Just-”

I motioned toward the station and the portal within.

We made our way through.  There wasn’t much traffic, but there was a lot of security.  Patrol block was out in force, checking our ID twice.  I had to hand over my bag.  Kenzie unloaded all of her trinkets and things, which ended up taking a few minutes.

The pressure of the city and of accumulated stresses were weighing on me.  It was hard to breathe.

When we finally got through, it got easier.  It was a question of walking down a hallway, past a blurry area, and up a half-flight of stairs, passing through doors.

Earth N.  Fresh air, trees, birds, fields.  There wasn’t much civilization at all, beyond the standard buildings that surrounded portals in foreign worlds.  Supplies, basic needs, a small hospital, administration.  Not even a small town.

Enemy territory.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Torch – 7.6

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

The shopping floor of the financial building gradually illuminated as the adjustable lights and shutters were replicated by the time camera.  It made for an unusual picture, where the shutters and the covers for the lights were closed but the light that passed through was painted as especially intense.

Meanwhile, on the floor of the center, the shadows of people passing through streaked the area, darkening it.  The yellow of construction vests and hats cut through the darkness of clothing, some skin, and equipment being rolled through as the building was used as a shortcut.

The other members of the group were standing at higher vantage points- on the stair-like ledges at the edges of the shopping floor’s main concourse, and on the stone edge around the simple fountain.  Having the higher ground let them see over the heads of the blurs.  Next to me, Kenzie had the best vantage point in the place, sitting on Byron’s shoulders.  The silent unfolding of the scene was punctuated by Byron telling her to stop wiggling so she wouldn’t fall.

I took the easier route and floated, trying to see the areas the camera covered that the others couldn’t.  There were people leaning in nooks and crannies, people sitting with papers beside them.

Most of the covert leaning was done by one construction employee, who carried an empty container and smoked, the ashes being tapped off into the container.  Multiple instances of smoke became a gossamer haze that hid their face.

The papers littered the places where people grabbed lunch and did some reading.  I flew past, noting the papers, and I saw ads for apartments, newspapers, and some kind of legal documentation that scanned as hazy with the way the time camera worked.

“A lot of people pass through this supposedly abandoned area,” Sveta said.  “I’m glad we called to ask for permission before breaking in this time, because this kind of traffic would have made it really dumb to try to sneak in.”

“They would notice the sea of blurry images before they noticed us,” Chris said.  “Especially if any of those images have the same height and general shape as them.  That’s gotta be weird.”

“This is over a few weeks,” Kenzie said.  “It’s not actually that many people.  Wait until I run facial identification and thin it out.”

“I can picture one of these guys showing up.  Hey, Leon the security guy, sorry to surprise you, we’re just replaying footage of every single thing you did in this building since the start of September.  Is that you scratching your butt there?  Then their jaws drop.”

“That wouldn’t happen, Chris,” I said.

“Do you think they’d shoot the scary parahumans first and ask questions later?” Chris asked.

“I think you wouldn’t say sorry,” I said.

“Ha!”

“Why did this place close down?” Sveta asked.  She was peering into a store that still had a banner down the window, featuring some game character.  I wasn’t sure if it was a board game or video game.  “It looks like it closed down before the portal.”

“It wasn’t built to fill a need,” Chris said.  “It was put here to make things feel like the home we lost.  It’s a lot of upkeep and money to prop up something symbolic.”

“It’s close to the station, stores look decent,” I said, looking at the remnants of what used to be.  A solid sign with plexiglass on it showed the stores the place had once had.  “It’s fine for location, a little grocery store and pharmacy for the people in nearby apartment complexes, or anyone working upstairs coming down… I don’t think that’s it.”

“It’s already going to pieces,” Byron said.  He kicked at the stone boundary of the fountain he was standing on.  A stone or two were missing.  “Problems, maybe.”

“That makes more sense to me,” I said.  A safety issue and forced evacuation.  It would be easier to get established somewhere else than to try to fix anything expensive.

As the blurs stretched out like so many misshapen caterpillars, many of them yellow-striped from the hard hats and vests, I saw one blur in one of the stores.

I flew down to investigate.

Dark clothes, dark hair, and a consistent slash of darkness at eye level.  Blurs intersected with her.

“Can you focus your facial recognition program on any area?” I called out.

“Ummmm… I have to finish first!  Which is soon!”

“When you’re finished?” I asked.

“I can choose a place as a starting point, I can start it over there,” Kenzie called out.  Her voice echoed through the large space.  “I’ll scan all of this before we’re done, though.”

“Sure,” I said.  “I think I found the woman with the sunglasses in… I think this was a computer store.”

“Woo!”

I folded my arm over the arm I still had in the sling as I walked around the perimeter of the computer store.  I tried to assess what the woman with the sunglasses was doing.  Something with computers and phones.  There were enough points where papers and a laptop rested on one of the long wooden tables that the table was now a blur of her work material.  No chair- she’d worked from a standing position.

Was there a point where she stayed still for a long period?

“Done!” Kenzie called out.  “Facial recognition one, live!  Siccing it on the sunglasses woman for you, Victoria!”

The cube-frame began dancing across the sunglasses woman’s head, flowing around the room as it tracked her pacing around the computer store.

“Facial recognition two, live!  Chris’ man, Leon the security guy!  Facial recognition three is a go!  And because it’s bratty, let’s change priority, give it a headstart annnnd… our fourth scan is live, looking for curious boxes.”

“Wait,” I could hear Chris say.  “The reason it kept finding itself is because you told it to look for boxes?”

“Under a certain size, with certain internal properties, yeah.  I told the compiler and the face and person searches to ignore you guys, but I forgot to make the box searcher ignore itself.  Fifth scan live.”

I stepped out of the store, glancing around.  As the cubes danced through the streams and waves of people, some were eliminated, cutting up the caterpillars.

“That answers one question and leaves me with so many more.  These things see inside people?”

“They can,” Kenzie said.  There isn’t much point though.  There is a point when I’m looking for tinkertech portal bombs.”

“If we identify any of our targets, do you think we could get a look inside them?”

“You just want to see their underwear, I bet.  So gross.”

There was a pause.  I could imagine Chris sighing.  I wasn’t close enough to hear, and my attention was focused elsewhere.

“What are you looking for, Chris?” Byron asked.

“The way people are put together is interesting,” Chris said.  “I’ll know it when I see it.”

“Can you do that, Kenz?” I asked.  “Give us a view of their insides?”

“Sure.  I guess.  We’ll try it when this part is done.  The resolution might suck for things that aren’t normally visible, and I have to concentrate it on one area.”

“While you’re at it,” Chris said.  “Can you draw a line through everyone?  Keep the… however many images of people you want.  But show the paths they traveled by giving each person a certain color of line that runs through their hearts or whatever?”

“Belt buckle, maybe.  People don’t change belts that often and they’re nice and unique, yeah, I can,” Kenzie said.  She motioned for Byron to put her down, and then went to get her computer out.  She was wholly focused on what she was doing, now.

“You’re surprising me with how into this you are,” Byron said, to Chris.  Byron rubbed at his own shoulders, where Kenzie had been sitting.

“It’s interesting.  This is neat,” Chris said.  Kenzie made a pleased sound, and Chris said.  “Don’t go getting a big head just because I gave you a compliment.”

“It’s neat that you think it’s neat,” Kenzie said.

“Why the focus on the way they’re put together and where they are, Chris?” Sveta asked.  “Are you looking for a shapeshifter or someone in disguise?”

“Nah,” Chris said, as he walked toward us, studying the security guy in passing.  “I’m thinking outside the box, plus she shuts up when she’s working hard on stuff.”

Kenzie snorted.

As the images started reducing down to a small enough number that people could walk between them without being blinded by the projections in their faces, the others stepped down from their vantage points, getting a look at our players in this scene.

“How are you these days, By?” Sveta asked.

“Dealing.  Some days I’m fine, some days it catches up with me and I’m the furthest thing from ‘fine’.  It’s times like that where I think a lot about-”  He lowered his voice.  “-how there’s not a lot of case seventies left.  Even before Gold Morning, most were dead or they had totally gone off the deep end.”

“From one name in a numbered casefile to another, there are answers,” Sveta said.  “It’s the upside of things being as messy and complicated as they are.  There’s a lot of weirdness out there, there are a lot of capes, and there’s tinkertech.  There has to be a key to things out there.”

I was left to wonder about that.  Sveta maintained a kind of optimism I wasn’t sure I held.  When I thought about my own issues, which might have been smaller than the problems of the members of this team, I didn’t generally think of fixes.

I held my tongue.

Byron spoke in a way that made it sound like he had to work to bring himself to say it, “It was easier when I could tell myself that we were researching it and reaching out to people who might be able to help or answer.  Progress is slow lately, with less people to reach out to, communication being slower and more awkward…”

“I’m working on your thing,” Kenzie said.  She didn’t look up from her computer as she talked.  “I know it’s not a fix, but it’ll give you options.”

“I appreciate the sentiment, Kenz,” Byron said.  “You’ve been working on that for a while, though.  If it’s too hard-”

“It’s not too hard!  It’s just weird.  If I had more scans of some specific cross-dimensional, intersectional sort of things, it would feel less weird.  I’ve had other things over the past few weeks, like this bratty time box, and then the cameras we used at the Fallen camp, for Rain, and Ashley’s eye camera, and a bunch of other stuff.  But I work on it every day.”

“Alright,” Byron said.  “Thanks, Kenz.  Don’t agonize on it- if it’s too hard, leave it.”

Kenzie had to raise her voice to be heard from the other end of the concourse, “It’s fine.  I could finish it in a day or two if I did nothing else.  Do you want me to do that?  It would mean postponing other stuff, but I’d do it for… if you’d take me out for a treat.  Thank me by taking me to get something nice at a restaurant or pastry shop.”

“It’s a trap,” Chris whispered.

“Shut it, Chris,” Kenzie said, her voice echoing.

I could see Byron’s expression change.  It was interesting just how distinct he was from Tristan.  Tristan had a way of moving his arms and shoulders and showing his emotions in a whole-body kind of way.  Byron contained it to his eyes and eyebrows, with the slightest of changes to his mouth, lips pressing together, eyebrows drawing together, while his eyes looked at nothing in particular.

He was tempted to say yes, I was ninety percent sure.

“No,” Byron said.  “Do what you need to.  This is more important.”

I couldn’t hold my tongue.  “If you’re actually thinking about death or losing it, Byron, that might warrant other people doing something.”

“I’m not,” he said.  “That’s the bad moments, and in those moments, I can see how things might end up that way.”

“So you are thinking about those things.”

“Not directly.  Besides, I’d feel worse knowing you guys could be helping others and you weren’t because you were trying to make me feel better.  I’m used to handling stuff myself, I’ve gotten this far, I can keep going.”

“Introverts unite,” Chris said.

“You know you can always reach out to us,” Sveta said.

“Yeah.  Thanks.”

All around us, the images were condensing into an isolated few.  There were some passing visits from other figures, I saw.  the scans of the woman with the sunglasses had finished, and now that cube was searching out the infrequent visitors.

Kids snuck in, going straight to the stores.

Then Kingdom Come, the bald man, and the strawberry blonde woman with the sleeve tattoo.

I glanced at Byron.  Sveta was investigating the group of the people we’d seen in the penthouse apartment, Chris was looking over Kenzie’s shoulder.

“You were saying something about… you didn’t want to dwell on your problem,” I said.  “You see other things as more important?”

Byron gave me a one-shouldered shrug.

“I have some experience with that,” I said.  “Not me, specifically.  My- my sister.  She was like that.  She did the introverted thing, doing stuff on her own.  Dealing on her own.”

“You don’t like talking about her.”

“I-” I started, then I laughed, and the one-note laugh came out with a hitch, making it sound awkward.  “I really don’t.  Um- yeah.  It’s easy to make that call, and then to make it again, and again, and again.  I imagine you tell yourself that you can deal, like you said.  You’ve dealt so far, right?”

“Right.”

“There will be bad days, Byron.  Then something happens, and when you’re in a position like you are, like my sister was, it doesn’t take much to leave you unable to deal anymore.  And where you could have asked for help before… you can’t after you get to that point.”

Byron nodded slowly.  “Yeah.”

I looked away, and I could see that the others were listening in.  No conversation between them.  Whatever.  It was fine.

“Just, you know, be careful,” I said.  “We’re parahumans, the casualties are more numerous and grislier.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “No, I get it, believe me.  I have some experience with that already.”

I nodded.

My awareness of once having been a ‘casualty’ made me feel uncomfortable.  I’d said my piece, and I tried to look casual as I checked the surroundings and flew off in the direction of the store with the woman withw the sunglasses.

She stood over a laptop on the desk, gripping the edge of the table as her weight rested on the heels of her hands.  Straight black hair in a utilitarian cut with straight-cut bangs and her hair tied back.  She wore sunglasses, a black long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and black boots. Her shirt was pulled over a bulge that had to be a gun.  The image was fuzzy, but I could see the straps beneath her shirt.

That was her casual wear, as she was in this room… when?  Sometime between the passage of construction and the security patrols.

Another her was by the door of the computer store.  She stood there, staring down at her phone, looking like she’d settled in to stand there for a while.  A different outfit.  Nothing suggested she stayed here.  Which made this, what?  It was her office?  A meeting place, with very few meetings?

The refinement process had isolated the papers that had sat untouched on the desk the longest.  Because they were the least necessary, they also had the least information.  Envelopes had been torn open, left beneath stacks of other things that remained blurry or indistinct, with only company names or logos in the corner to set them apart.

I noted the wires that extended off the table to the wall.  There were bags under the table.

“We have our fourth target, I see,” Sveta said.

“Seems like,” I said.  “I thought there was one laptop she moved around… but this is three laptops.  The store was set up to have internet, power, and other things.  There might have been leftover stock.  She came here for the hookup.”

The others caught up with us.

“She hooked into this place’s security,” Kenzie said.  “The cameras moved to watch the entrances.”

“She made this a base of operations,” I said.  “Computers, supplies, internet, power, entrances watched so she could bolt if she needed to.”

“The papers aren’t readable,” Chris said.

I investigated them.

Construction company, agriculture supply, more agriculture, which might have been the same company- I couldn’t be sure.  The name Mortari stood out to me.

Kenzie had her laptop tucked under one arm.  She put it on the table, then typed a bit.

A pulsing pastel-purple line threaded its way through the room.  The woman’s course, or the snake reduced down to a simple line.

Not an easy to follow line, but it gave us a sense of things.

“A lot of time at the door,” Byron said.

“Do you think we can do that deep scan?” Chris asked.

“Yeah,” Kenzie said.

The scan was localized into an area about four feet by two feet by two feet across.  It was localized around the woman, and it took almost as long as the entire mall had.  We all did our patrols, studying the images, came back, wandered off again.

From a pure curiosity standpoint, it was interesting to see the woman.  People were dark inside, so Kenzie was forced to cast the image in black and white.  From there, it was like seeing slices of an MRI scan or X-ray.

I’d been right about the gun, I noted.

As the image filled in from the back forward, flickering violently at points, Chris got up onto the table, bending over.  I flew to get a better look.

The front of the brain.  The mind’s eye.

“Corona Pollentia,” I said.  “She has powers.”

“We could have guessed that,” Chris said.

“They take different forms.  There aren’t hard and fast rules.  But I’ve heard that if you trigger young, it takes more of a hold, with more… it’s called dimpling.  Like a hand is actually pressing it down into the brain.  That right there looks like dimpling.”

“Creepy, ” Kenzie said.

“You get more cloudiness in some kinds of scans where it expands out into the webbing around the brain, but we’re not getting that.  It’s been way too long since I studied this,” I said.  “The corona starts as a single marker, like a quarter-sized knot in wood, or a ball the size of a golf ball, pushed between the two lobes.  Then when we trigger, it surges into life.  It’s part of the reason we black out.  It expands slightly, veins swell.  But most of the time an unactivated corona is hard to tell apart from an activated one, and a surprising number of people have unactivated ones.  Sometimes you look at them and the larger veins or structures suggest what the power is linked to.”

“What does this tell us?” Chris asked.

“She triggered young.  It’s deeper set.  People who had a corona for a long time don’t get dimpling, I’m pretty sure.  Looking at the veins, where it seems to have reached out… can you rewind?  Slowly go back, show us slices further back?”

“Sure,” Kenzie said.

We went further back.

“Resolution’s too blurry in parts,” I said.  “Couldn’t begin to guess.  But going further back…”

“Going,” Kenzie said.

There.  That didn’t look right.

I searched on my phone, waited for a minute as it loaded, then held up the phone, comparing.

Veins or vein-like solid structures ran through one portion of the brain like the roots of a tree had been seeking nutrients.

“The cerebellum,” Chris said.

“Right,” I said.  “You apparently know more than I do on this.”

“I’ve had to pay attention to it.  If you go to a doctor and they say your pancreas almost tore itself in half, then it’s a great mnemonic for remembering the pancreas and what it’s for.  Cerebellum is senses, seeing, hearing, coordination of movement.”

“That makes me think of Mama Mathers,” Sveta said.

“If thinkers had an emphasis, I think it leans more toward frontal lobe.  This could be a perception power, I guess.”

“I think we’re pretty far into the weeds,” Byron said.

“Yeah,” I said.  I still considered for a moment longer.  “What if she’s a master, and that’s… whatever control system she needs to manage her minions?  See, hear, coordinate?”

“Could be,” Chris said.  “Okay, I didn’t want to say it, because it was my idea-”

“Good idea,” Byron said.

“-Yeah.  But it took forever, and I’m bored, I gotta piss, and I’m hungry,” Chris said.  He walked over the top of the table, stepping through things that weren’t really there.

“We can wrap up soon,” I said.  “The trails- the image of her standing at the door.  Is it possible to find the time she was waiting and see if anyone was there around that time?”

“Um.  This is awkward,” Kenzie said.

“Awkward how?” I asked.

“So, as you know, I work primarily with space.  I can’t really know if any images are related in proximity in time because I didn’t gather any of that data.”

“You made a camera that can look through time,” Chris was incredulous.  “How did you not implement timestamps?”

“I bulk collected!”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “No stress.”

“It’s a little stressful when he’s giving me a hard time,” Kenzie said.

“Hypothetically speaking, is it possible to narrow down times of day?  Cut out every image that came up between two past midnight and four in the afternoon?”

“No.”

“Or… days?  Limiting things to just the day before the attack?”

“Maybe, but there might not be many good images.”

“We could simplify,” Byron said.  “The lines.  She was waiting here a lot.  There’s a scribbly sort of collection of lines here.”

We stepped away from the image of the woman.  Chris jumped down from the table he was standing on.

“And the only other line that’s really clustered here…”

“Leon the security guard,” Chris said.

“Whose name,” Kenzie observed, before running over a few feet to where an image of Leon was stuffing a bag into the trash.  “Was… Durbin, according to the nametag.”

Taz Durbin fidgeted.

He was outnumbered.  A nineteen year old guy with a very dense growth of facial hair that had been short and the edges cut in exacting straight lines, creating an effect where it looked like it was fake.  The hair around his temples and hairline was overly meticulous in the same way.  He sat alone and he looked tired as hell.  He worked nights, and this was firmly in the later hours of his sleep schedule.  The cops had already questioned him, adding to how frazzled he was.

Sveta, Capricorn, and I were there, facing him down, with Chris and Looksee sitting by a table in the corner, sitting with Natalie.  Capricorn was in goat-mode.  Tristan.

Two of Foresight’s members were also present.  Effervescent was the cape with the unreliable emotion read who had helped scupper my interview for the team.  Anelace was the dashing rogue who had tried to be nice about things.

The group was rounded out with three officers.  Two stood in the corner by the door.  The third was behind Durbin, an older guy who stood near the kids and Natalie.

“You met the woman who was using the shopping center for a base of operations,” Capricorn said.  “You knew she was there.”

“It was an office, I thought,” Durbin said.  “I didn’t think it was doing any harm.  She brought gas for the generator, she didn’t leave any mess.”

“She had access to security,” Capricorn said.

“I don’t know anything about that.”

“You didn’t notice the cameras moved?  There was no part in your patrol where you’d go to the security office, look at the monitors, and realize they weren’t pointed where they should be?”

The guy looked so scared.  “I did my job.”

“Answer the question,” an officer said.

“She paid me to look the other way.  I looked the other way.  I already admitted this.”

“She was one of the terrorists who blew up the Norwalk portal,” Anelace cut in.

It wasn’t the first time he’d heard that, but the fear intensified as it was hammered in.  I’d seen that expression so many times when I’d used my power, something with presence and magnitude taking hold of everything from heart to muscle to the dilation of the eyes.

I wouldn’t have gone straight for that.  From the glance Capricorn shot me, he wouldn’t have either.

Still.  Connections mattered.  Information was currency, and we’d decided it was essential to buy cooperation.  Bringing Foresight in would help more in the long run.  I hoped.

“Taz,” I said.  “You weren’t sympathetic with them, were you?  You weren’t happy about this portal thing?”

“No!  God no!”

“Then help us.  Anything you can tell us about her,” Capricorn said.

“I don’t- I really don’t know.  Jesus, I can’t think.”

“Can I talk to you guys outside?” Effervescent asked the cops.  After a nod, she led them to the door.

Though Durbin turned to look at the reflective glass, aware that there were even more eyes on him, of a number he couldn’t know, the people leaving the interrogation room served to lower the pressure.

I chose to back off, myself.  Anelace and Capricorn could take point.  I stepped off to the side.  If needed, I’d try to play nice.

“Did she give you a name?” Capricorn asked.

Durbin shook his head.

“How did she approach you?” Anelace asked.

“She caught me on my way through the door by the elevators,” Durbin said.  “Other entrances are boarded up.  She asked if there was a place she could set up, and I thought she meant the offices above.  I told her about having to talk to people upstairs, I didn’t know anything, you know.  She clarified, she wanted to be more discreet, do something less expensive than buying office space.  Said it was to get her company up and running.”

“And she raised the subject of the gas?”

“That was after.  The power shuts off after a certain time.  I do my patrol with my flashlight.  After a few times when she lost her work, she said she’d bring in gas for the emergency generator, she knew people.  I thought it was great for both of us.”

“She offered you cash at first, then.”

Durbin nodded.  “Yeah.  Not a lot.  Not worth this.  I bought myself sneakers with the money, after a few weeks.  It’s hard to get good shoes these days.”

“A few weeks?  How long total?” Capricorn asked.

“Since… June, I guess.  It was hot out when I first saw her, and it was late.  I remember thinking about the fact that she was wearing black on such a warm evening.”

“Were you aware she was a parahuman?” Anelace asked.

“No, no idea.  Who is she?”

Anelace didn’t answer, instead glancing at Capricorn and I.

I wasn’t sure I was a fan of how he kept giving up information on how much we knew, but I wasn’t about to stop him or ask him to leave.  Durbin wasn’t a mastermind.  He wasn’t going to break or stop being able to testify.  It was more a question of getting him to realize and parse just how much he knew.

“What did you talk about?” Capricorn asked.

“Weather, stuff I’d seen on television, recent events.  She’d wait for me, hand me my cash, we’d say one or two things.  Sometimes she’d ask when my relief was coming because she was planning on staying late.”

“You seem awfully cool with this arrangement,” Anelace said.  “Nameless woman, random approach, gas from nowhere?”

“I was happy to have my lights on while I did my route, a bit of pocket money,” Durbin said.  “I thought it was a good thing, being able to see things and make sure nobody was hiding in the shadows, spot any vandalism, which there wasn’t much.”

“It kind of defeats the purpose of having security if the security lets people into the building, doesn’t it?” Anelace asked.

Taz Durbin looked miserable.  He nodded.

“She didn’t tell you her name, she didn’t tell you where she was from, or anything about the business?  Was there any kind of marking on the can or barrel she used for the gas?” Capricorn asked.

“Barrel.  No.  No mark that I saw.  I think it was the same barrel every time.”

“What color was the barrel?” Anelace asked.

“Uh.  No idea.  It was dark, and… light green?  Or gray?”

Witness testimony was bad when it came to things like that.

“You never met her friends?” Capricorn asked.  When Durbin shook his head, Capricorn pressed, “You never saw anyone go in with her, or go in to see her?”

“No.”

“Did you ever see her with her sunglasses off?” I asked.

Durbin looked startled at the question.  He shook his head.  “No.  She said she had a vision problem.  Is that useful?”

“Maybe.  Could have been a lie.  Some physical mutations might be hidden with sunglasses.”

“Could be,” Sveta said.

“Holy,” Durbin said.  “Holy.  I didn’t think she was dangerous.”

“Focus, okay?” Capricorn told the shell-shocked guy.  “Were there any moments you had doubts?  Anything peculiar that put you off?”

“She did her thing, I did mine,” Durbin said.  “We talked for a minute a night, or not even.  I didn’t want to interrupt her too much.  She really did that with the portal?”

“She was in contact with two other groups,” Looksee said.  Durbin had to twist around in the chair that was bolted to the ground in order to see her.  “I think she was coordinating three of the attacks.”

“Oh,” Durbin said.  Color leeched from his face.  “Yeah, that’s… God.”

Capricorn tapped the table, and Durbin’s head whipped around like Capricorn had slammed his hand down.

Capricorn’s voice was gentle.  “Focus.  You talked for a minute every night, right?  There could be clues in that.”

“We talked about weather,” Durbin said.

“Any mention of travel?” Capricorn asked.  “Having to drive in the rain?”

Durbin shook his head.  “Was, like, aw, the weather’s getting cooler.  Nothing big.”

“What else, then?  What did you talk about?”

“TV.”

“What shows?” Capricorn pressed, insistent.

“Uh.  Shit, I don’t think she talked about much.  I mostly blathered.  I’d recommend stuff, she’d say she would get to it when she wasn’t so busy with getting her business started.”

“What shows did you talk to her about?” Capricorn asked.

“Is this so important?” Anelace asked.

“What shows?” Capricorn asked, more firmly.

The competitive streak might have been coming out.  He very naturally took the lead in this questioning, when we had invited Foresight to the table.

On a level, I couldn’t blame him.  I had issues with Anelace’s approach to the interrogation.  With Capricorn, there seemed to be a thrust to it.  He had something in mind.

“TVA, it’s Earth Aleph stuff.  I’d complain because they don’t always have all the episodes at the station, and it’s not like we can get more.  Sometimes I’d watch a show and it would skip episodes, and it got really confusing with this one modern supernatural show, because it actually skipped an episode on purpose, because of time magic-”

“Focus.”

“Um.  Yeah.  Some trashy television.  Reality stuff, I tried to pitch it to her but she seemed repulsed.”

“That’s good.  That’s the sort of small detail that might be useful,” Capricorn said.

Taz nodded, seemingly eager to be giving us anything that might help.  “Uh, I’d bring up sports, when there was a match.  Parahuman brawling- she wasn’t a fan.”

“Repulsed again?” I asked.

“Nah.  Just not a fan.  I brought up basketball a lot.  The high school teams have a league this year, with a lot of the athletic students focusing on sports during their half-days.  She said she missed watching.”

“Which means she had some interest.  Who did she root for?” Capricorn asked.

“Oh, huh.  The Heralds.”

“She liked them?”

“She really liked them,” Durbin said.

“That’s not Earth Gimel,” Anelace said.  “That’d be the school in Wailings, Earth N.”

“Lord of Loss’s territory,” I said.

“You don’t think he’s responsible, do you?” Anelace asked.

I shook my head.  “No idea.  But it says something if they’re maybe coming from a place that’s not a part of the megalopolis and they attacked it in the way they did.  It also explains why they set up shop here.”

“They’re not connected to us,” Anelace said.  “For internet, information, cell… they had to come here.”

“It’s thin,” Capricorn said.  “It’s a place to look, though.”

“Durbin,” I said.  When he didn’t snap his attention to me, I said, “Taz.”

“Yeah?”

“When she paid you.  What did she give you?”

“Forty a night.  Twenty if she brought gas.”

“No, I mean what type of currency?”

“New Dollars,” Durbin said.  “In my pocket.  I still have some, it’s hard to exchange.”

I remained where I was and let Anelace be the one to fish in Durbin’s pocket, drawing out the wallet.  He opened it up and fished out a bill.  “Tracking number might help us trace it back.”

“Ooh,” Looksee said.  “Wait, hold it flat.”

She approached the table.  Anelace held the bill flat, and Looksee took a picture of it.

“Fingerprints,” she said.

“I wasn’t happy about it being New Dollars,” Durbin volunteered.  “She was nice about giving me more when the value dropped.”

Anelace nodded, looking at me.  Unconventional currency for the unconventional settlement of Wailings.  The Trading Dollar was the dominant currency across the Megalopolis.  Other currencies were tied to natural resources, to other Earth currencies, but they had their issues.  The New Dollar had its issues, but it was still used in places, on the fringes.

The hypothesis is getting less thin, now.

There was a knock on the window.  We’d asked for a turn at questioning, in exchange for giving them this info.  It seemed our time was up.

We filed out, and the room that had been a dozen people facing down Durbin became just a room with only a miserable, tired Durbin sitting in his metal chair, elbows on the metal table.

The door shut, and the cop locked it.

Others were already out in the hallway.  Effervescent stepped out of the room with the one-way window.

“Effy?” Anelace asked.

“He’s telling the truth.  He has a drug habit he hasn’t mentioned, but it’s minor.  He was scared of her.  No indication powers screwed with his head or mind.”

“If she is a master, it’s not necessarily that?” I asked.  “Could it be subtle?  You had a hard time getting a read on me.”

‘Effy’ looked annoyed at that.  “I don’t think it’s subtle.  I don’t think there are any blocks or scrambles, either.”

“It was a very mundane infiltration, then,” Anelace said.

“It would be interesting to know if he was being watched,” I said.  “If I were them, I wouldn’t let something I saw as critical be reliant on one stranger’s conscience.”

“I can check stuff,” Looksee said.

“Don’t overwork,” I said.

“I won’t.  This is easy and fun.”

I glanced at Natalie, who was silent, and then at the oldest cop in the room.

“This is good to know,” he said.

“I know we’ve been reeling,” I said.  “Stuff’s… all over the place, with the Wardens gone and key people gone, missing, or being moved around.  We could have gone this alone, but we decided it’s key to share information.  The greatest strength the good guys have is that we work together.”

“What do you want?” the cop asked.

“The people who were arrested when we stopped some from getting the portals.  Interrogation logs, information, anything that could point us in the right direction.  Whatever we get, we’ll share with you.  Whatever you have… give us access.”

“I’ll talk to people, see about cutting away the red tape.”

“Same with us?” Anelace asked.

“And the other teams,” Capricorn said.

“There’s really only one other,” Anelace said.  “Advance Guard’s having trouble bouncing back.  They got hurt badly by the injuries and loss of infrastructure.”

“Maybe a mission will help,” Capricorn said.

“Maybe,” Anelace conceded.

“Can you ask around, see if anyone has a good enough relationship with Lord of Loss to open communication?” Capricorn asked.  “Don’t tip him off, but ask if some heroes could visit Wailings?”

“I’ll ask, see if anyone knows.  You should know that a lot of the Hollow Point guys that didn’t get offed fell back to the border territories.”

“We’ll be careful,” Capricorn said.

A younger officer approached, a stack of print-outs in his arms the size of a phone book.  Capricorn took half.  Chris and Sveta each took the remainder.  Our files.

There was a brief exchange of numbers and cards.  We shook hands with the cops, and then we shook hands with Anelace.

He held my hand a touch longer than was necessary, looking me in the eyes, and said, “This was good.”

“I’m glad,” I said.

He freed my hand.  The groups split up, with Durbin left in the care of the police.

“The G-N portal was one of the data points,” Looksee said.  “Calls made to and from that area.”

“There’s no cell signal from the other side,” Capricorn said.

“They come through and make calls as soon as they have signals,” Looksee said.  “Give me a bit of time to get the wheels spinning and I can start on facial recognition, license plates, and start checking on people around there.  It’s even close-ish to my place.”

“After you get permission from the authorities for that kind of surveillance, you mean,” Natalie said.

“Of course,” Looksee said.

The last time I’d faced Lord of Loss, we’d fought Brute to Breaker.  It hadn’t been pretty, but… he’d played by the rules.

The people he seemed to be hosting in his territory were very much not playing by those rules.  There was a chance that he knew, which meant another Earth, however small a set of settlements, that was aligned against Gimel.

A chance he didn’t know.  Which would mean Earth N faced the same kind of subversive attack that we’d weathered in Gimel.

I mentally revised my schedule, trying to keep key duties and events straight in my head.  Visit the orphanage where Chris was staying, and make sure all was well.  Make time for Sveta.  Make time for Crystal, and get her something nice.  Call Rain and Ashley, and catch them up, see if they had input.  Move.  Ugh.  Have dinner with Kenzie’s family.  Have a conversation with the Villain Warlord of Earth N, potentially with the fate of whole Earths on the line.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Torch – 7.5

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

I don’t know how I’m going to help these guys, Jessica.

I found myself actually hesitating before approaching Sveta, Tristan and Chris.  The group had lost two of its members and its mentor in a matter of nine days.

Kenzie was missing, I noted.  She was always early, barring extraordinary event.  Worrying, when she was first or tied for first place among those I was most concerned about- she had just lost her friend, or whatever it was that Ashley was to her.  Hard to pin down.  That was the first half of it.  The second half was the underlying threat within this group that Jessica had been so concerned about.

What do I even do?

The big question mark shaped space where Kenzie was supposed to be was enough for me to get over my hesitation.

They were standing at the top of a set of concrete stairs.  The stairs were supposed to lead up to a shopping center, the sort of building that had a mall on the ground floor and in the basement and offices for the second floor and above.  It had been looted on a prior occasion, and now the doors and display windows were boarded up, shutters closed where the shutters were intact.

Sveta had started painting her body again, now that the court proceedings were done.  Forest green, again, with teal blues for the select details and animals.  It was only partial, and she used the negative, unpainted space in a neat way, with a mandala or kaleidoscope pattern to what was painted and what wasn’t.  Her top was another of the simple tops with knots at each shoulder and below each armpit; there was a navy blue base to the cloth and more teal for the lettering around an anchor design.  Her pants looked like sweats.  Her feet were ‘bare’, being only the prosthetic feet, and I could see where the tops of the feet were painted, the toes left alone.

Tristan had a white jacket on over a crimson top, jeans so faded they were almost white, and white sneakers.  He hadn’t found the time to apply more paint to his hair, it seemed, and he hadn’t shaved.  I could see the faint shadow, even from a distance.

And Chris was… very much Chris.  His hood was up and his hoodie zipped up all the way.  He had dark circles under red eyes, his braces were on and looped around his head, and he had a different set of headphones on, with a forward-sweeping bar that clipped to the front of his hood.  It looked a bit like he’d done it himself, and I was left to wonder just why he’d wanted to keep his head that securely covered.

The pressure differential between portals was responsible for strong wind on a good day, these days.  Clouds and weather came rolling through with little warning beyond what the scientists on the far side could figure out.  Today wasn’t such a good day- there were two portals in reasonably close proximity here and the two played off each other to make the wind issue twice as bad as it might otherwise be.

The tallest buildings were swaying.  It was bad enough of a gale that there wasn’t much traffic on the road or sidewalks.  I was forced to fly close to the ground.

“Heya,” Sveta said, as I flew over to join the group, staying near to the ground.  She reached out for my good arm and gave it a squeeze.  I shifted position and gave her a better one-armed hug.

“Where’s Kenzie?” I asked.

“She’s running late,” Tristan said.  “And this is her neighborhood.”

And it’s her project we’re here to see,” Chris said.

“Did you guys call her?” I asked.

“Moment I arrived and she wasn’t here,” Tristan said.  “No response.”

“It’s ominous,” Chris said.  “I would say something about the sky falling, but there’s already a Chicken Little out there.  I’d say something about the world coming to an end, but that joke got tired a year ago.”

“Not really a joke, that last one,” Tristan said.

“Meh.  There’s a warlord out there with the fire-to-ice shtick and a demon mask, and I’d bet money he did it so he could make the reference every chance he got.  I can’t use ‘hell freezing over’ because it’s tainted with that guy’s suck.”

“He sounds Fallen,” Sveta said.

“No,” I said.  “Just a douche.”

“We ran out of good names and now all the good themes and ideas are being taken or spoiled,” Chris complained.  “I have no fancy way of saying ‘that kid is never late’.”

“Kid?” Tristan asked.  “You’re only two years older than her.”

“She’s way more of a kid than I am,” Chris said.

“I don’t know, Chris,” I said.  “I think she has the edge when it comes to certain kinds of maturity.  Work ethic, maintaining the relationship pillars…”

“What the hokey garbage fuck is a relationship pillar?” Chris asked.

“…and she’s more polite,” I said, teasing.  “The pillars are honesty, trust, respect, caring, sharing…”

Chris withered like he was in physical pain, a vampire exposed to the cross, hissing through his teeth and braces.

“She’s pretty on the ball with that stuff,” I said.  I craned my head and flew up until my feet were just above the others’ heads, so I could try to spot Kenzie.  Chris continued hissing.

He was very good at his inhuman sounds.

He stopped hissing to say, “I regret asking.  I miss Ashley and Rain already.  Without them to balance out the group, we’re going to end up getting back together as team Caramel Friendship with tramp stamps like the Love Bugs have.”

“I hate that term,” Tristan said.  “‘Tramp stamp’.”

“It’s a label for a reason,” Chris said.

“I had a crush on a guy in high school who had a lower back tattoo, and he wasn’t a ‘tramp’,” Tristan said.  “It gets me when I think of that term getting thrown around and an awesome guy getting shit because of it.”

“He should have paid more attention, then,” Chris said.  “His fault.”

“Let’s not fight,” I said.  “Kenzie.  At what point do we spread out and hunt for her?” I asked.

“Soon,” Tristan said.  “I thought we’d give her ten minutes, and that was four minutes ago.”

There was a pause.  The wind whipped past us.

I was hoping they’d put up a nice structure around each portal, to control the pressures and block the wind.  I wasn’t sure of the logistics of it, but it would be really nice to fly again without it being the effort it was now.

“I’ve never seen Love Bugs,” Sveta commented.

Chris snorted, “Count yourself lucky.  The younger kids at the institution are always watching that kind of crap.  It’s so high pitched it sets my nerves on edge when my senses aren’t heightened.”

“Are the Love Bugs the ones with sayings and puns around their symbols, like scrollwork on a coat of arms?” Tristan asked.  “I wonder if there’s a good goat pun I could do for my Caramel Friendship team lower back tattoo.”

“That’s a different show,” Chris said.  “I can’t tell you how much I hate that I know that.”

Tristan’s watch beeped.  He sighed.

“Time to swap?” I asked.

He nodded.  “Better go look for Kenz.  Make sure she didn’t get mugged or blown away in this wind.”

Chris snorted.

“Hey Byron,” Tristan said.  “I’ll give you three hours later if you give me an hour now.”

He changed, blurring.  Byron appeared, and immediately had the wind blow his hair into his face.  He fixed it.  He wasn’t wearing a jacket, only a thin sweatshirt that was more for the hood and graphic than for the warmth, black skater pants, and sneakers.  Between the dip in temperature and the wind, he should have reacted more to the chill.  I supposed his temperature resistance helped.

“Nah,” Byron said.  “Feels weird, Trist, you coming out this way when you had almost no time left.  I know it’s not far, but…”

He shrugged.  “Going to play it safe and stick to the routine.”

“It’s good to have you with us, Byron,” I said.  “We don’t talk enough.”

“I’m here when Tristan is.”

“You have us at a disadvantage, then,” I said.  “You know us and we don’t know you.”

“Guess so.”

“Are you leaving or will you stay?” Sveta asked.

Byron made a face.

“Stay,” she said, punching him lightly in the arm.

“Okay.  Sure.  I’ll help look, and compromise for Tristan.”

“Which way is her house?” I asked.

Nobody knew, so we had to get phones out.  All three of us looked.

“Got it,” Chris said.

“Damn it,” I said.  He’d won the race.

At a glance, Byron didn’t seem to care one way or the other, but he was a hard guy to read.

Chris turned on the spot, then pointed.

“You guys go straight, Sveta go more left, I’ll go right?” I asked.

That got multiple nods of affirmation.

As I got ready to take off, checking for traffic, since I didn’t want to fly high, I heard Byron in the background.  “Tristan, was your crush Jhett Marion?  Wasn’t it a roleplaying game tattoo?  He had back hair when he was fourteen.”

Chris cackled.

I shook my head.  Poor Tristan.

The areas where the portals had opened up were in worse shape than the others.  People had reacted, and the violent reaction was only a small part of things.  Some had realized their close call and moved away from the portals that could potentially expand again.  Abandoned property, harsher weather, and the fact that a lot of the constructions had been rushed meant that there was a kind of decrepitude setting in.  Debris, trash, broken windows, and the occasional door left open.

I imagined there were people out there who would have happily claimed the empty houses, even with the proximity to the portal, but it was the same kind of dynamic as in Hollow Point.  In a lot of places, the people that had abandoned properties hadn’t gone through official channels or put up listings to let others know the properties were available.

One street, a bus parked to block off the road, with another two vehicles parked further down that same road.  It was there, it seemed, to break the wind that would have blown straight into the main road through Norwalk Station.

I did one loop, seeing only crowds and countermeasures.  There were signs warning that the main road was blocked by the portal, with instructions for detours and flow.  The signs had been hastily put together.

A flash in the distance got my attention.

That would be her.

Four people were blinded and sitting on their asses, backs to the wall.  Kenzie was there, uncostumed, her face blurred.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

The blur faded away and Kenzie smiled.  “I’m good!  Except I’ve been waiting way too long.”

“We’ll talk about that in a second.  Who are these guys?”

“I’m blind!” one shouted.  “New person, help!”

“They wanted what I was carrying, and I said no.  They insisted, I shot ’em.  I set it to a two.”

“There are settings?”

“They’ll be blind for two hours.  Where were you all?  I was lonely, geez.”

“We were waiting at the stairs of the financial building, where the mall closed up.”

Kenzie smiled.  “What?  No.  I sent a new location.”

“Check again.”

She did, fishing out her phone.  “Don’t try running just because I’m not looking or aiming at you.”

She fiddled with her phone.  She wore a blue polo top with heart-shaped buttons down the collar and a pink stripe across the chest.  She had a pink skirt, blue leggings, and an hourglass hairpin.  Her eyehook extended out from her belt, and she had her flash gun dangling from her pinky.

The box she’d brought for the day was sitting beside her.  It was just large enough that I imagined it had to be inconvenient.  Larger than a backpack, just broad and tall enough that holding it by the handles on either side had to be a pain.  Kenzie wasn’t fully grown, either.

The box had been painted to match her outfit, it seemed.  Two triangles with one point touching formed an hourglass shape, and that shape repeated across the box, from a predominantly pink hue at one corner to a deeper blue at the opposite corner.

“I like the color matching,” I said.

“My outfit?” she asked, typing at her phone.  She smiled.  “They were my back to school clothes.  I like them.”

I tried my phone, sending a message to the others, to let them know where we were.  I saw the tiny red warning icon on each text message I sent.  “My messages aren’t going through.”

That’s what’s going on,” Kenzie said.

One of the thugs who’d tried to rob Kenzie lurched to his feet, then ran, blind, down the street.

“Cell towers might be struggling,” I said, while I kept an eye on the guy.

Kenzie didn’t look up from her phone, but her eyehook turned to track the runner.

The guy didn’t run in a straight line, and as he veered, he ran straight into a pile of trash, tripping heads over heels.

The others who remained looked alarmed at the noise that caused.

“What the hell are you guys doing, mugging a kid?”

“We weren’t mugging her.  We were questioning her.”

“And demanding my box,” Kenzie said.

“There’s so much going wrong, you mentioned the cell towers.  That’s been breaking as fast as we fix it.  The power’s fucked and we’re getting blackouts, and some food that was supposed to be delivered wasn’t.  Now some kid turns up with suspicious stuff?”

I looked at Kenzie.  She shrugged, saying, “The power outages aren’t that bad.  I dunno about the other stuff.  Looks like the cell towers are off.  I connected online, though.  I’m stealing someone’s internet.”

“Their story doesn’t jar with what they said to you?” I asked.

“No, but if they were telling the truth then they were major jerkasses about it.”

“We heard the portal was broken by a group of people.  We’re keeping an eye out.  Neighborhood watch thing.”

“You ignored a bunch of other people and came after me instead,” Kenzie said.  “Is it because I’m a kid?”

“You were carrying a weird colorful thing!”

“Weird thing aside,” I said.  “I mean, come on, guys.  She’s gotta be the least threatening person you’ll run into in the next while.  She’s, what, five feet tall and ninety pounds?”

“Close!  Eighty-one and a quarter pounds,” Kenzie whispered.  “Four feet ten and a half inches.  But thank you for thinking I’m bigger and taller.  I’m flattered.”

“You can’t know,” the guy said.  “Maybe they got away with it because they were kids.  Parahumans are dangerous, they could be anywhere.”

Another of the guys said, “Young ones are more dangerous if anything.  They don’t have the impulse control.”

“Even if that was eerily accurate and true, you guys were nasty about it,” Kenzie said.  “That wasn’t okay.”

“Fuck,” one said, under his breath.

The guy who’d tripped over the trash hadn’t quite found his feet.  He tripped over the trash he’d knocked off of the pile, falling again.

I walked over to him, grabbed him by the scruff, and dragged him back to the others.  Kenzie had approached too, but it wasn’t to help the guy.  She used her eyehook to pick up the trash.

“We were the ones who helped stop the portal thing from being worse, you dingbats,” I said.  “Do you want to make this a thing, Looksee?  We could arrest them.”

“Nah.  I think they learned not to mug potential capes.  And to be nicer, right?  Don’t call people names or go straight to being rough.”

“Not mugging,” the guy I’d just brought back to his friends said.  “We were investigating and looking out for trouble.”

“I’m trying to be nice,” she said.  “You keep arguing points or swearing instead of saying sorry.  Maybe we should call the police after all.”

For all the good that’ll do.

The men gave their apologies in near-unison.

Kenzie nodded, satisfied.

Her face and hair briefly went blurry again as someone drove past.

“Do you guys have a number I can try calling?” I asked.  “Or an email we can send?  We’ll call someone to pick you up.  You’ll get your eyes back in two hours.”

They gave me an email.  Kenzie sent the message to the families of the blinded men.

“I asked before,” I said, my voice quiet.  “Are you okay?  With Ashley’s pre-court proceeding not going well, same for Rain, the group being in a weird place, how are you holding up?”

“I’m holding,” Kenzie said, smiling.  “Ashley told me to be tough, so I’m being tough.  I’m focusing more on my stuff, but it’s a good distraction.”

“You’re sleeping okay?  Eating okay?”

“Not sleeping, but nothing too bad.  I’m staying up until midnight, sometimes one or two in the morning.  Working on stuff like my box here.  I was working on Tristan and Byron’s thing too, I have some stuff that has a one percent chance of working, max, and it would be video only if it worked, but it would maybe let us see Byron while Tristan is out and vice versa.”

“Eating?”

“Eating!  That reminds me.  Do you want to come over sometime soon?”

“I’ll answer your question if you answer mine.”

“I eat.  Three regulars.  My parents were always very big on sitting down and eating as a family.  Unless it’s an emergency, I don’t miss dinner.”

I’d told myself I wanted to check on them.  This worked.  I could remember how horrified the others had been at the prospect of my going over to her place for dinner, but this seemed important.

“Then yes, I’ll come over.”

“Tonight or tomorrow?  Do you have a preference for what to eat?”

“Sure, and no preference for day or food.  Just let me know, and double check that the message got through.  I don’t want to miss this because of a missed message.”

“Will do,” she replied, with all the seriousness she would have shown if she were receiving a field order.

“I’ve got to say, it’s concerning, if people are reading this failure of infrastructure as sabotage.”

“For sure.”

Our guys showed up around the same time the vigilante’s backup did.  We left them to their backup with a brief explanation, then walked in the direction of Sveta, Chris, and Byron.  Because the box was heavy-ish and I only had the one hand, I took one handle and Kenzie took the other.

We explained in brief.

“Your dad didn’t give you a ride?” Byron asked.

“He’s busy with stuff.  His work isn’t doing so great right now,” she said.  “My mom wants to move but can’t find a good place to go.  I’m not too bothered.”

“You brought a thing?” Chris asked.

Kenzie gave her box a pat.  “We don’t have far to go.  At first I thought we’d use the abandoned shopping center, but I think we’ll get better results at this place.  It’s managed by a real estate company that’s rivals with my dad’s.  We kind of have to break in.”

“Sweet,” Chris said.

“Not sweet,” Byron said.  “Concerning.”

“Concerning on multiple fronts,” I agreed.

“Can you go with me on this?” she asked.  “It’s a good location, not too much noise, I think, and I’m super-duper eighty, seventy, mayyybe sixty percent sure this is going to be totally worth it.”

“What are you up to?” I asked.

“Nothing!  Nothing.  Field test.  It’s hard to get optimal conditions, targets, and stuff.  I still need to fine tune.”

“She’s up to something,” Byron said.

“No!  Yes!  But not in a bad way!”

“Kenzie,” Sveta said.  “What are you doing?”

“Please?  I’ve worked so hard on this project, and the idea of this moment with the flashy reveal and everything has been keeping my mood up since one of my favorite people got sent to a cape gulag.”

“It’s a block of buildings in an isolated area, with heavy supervision, limited time outdoors, and explosive trans-dimensional ankle monitors,” I said.  “It’s not that uncomfortable.”

“Has to have slave labor to be a gulag,” Chris said.

Kenzie tried her best puppy dog eyes.

“If we caved to this, what kind of precedent would we be setting?” Sveta asked.

“It’s not even good puppy dog eyes, compared to what you could really do,” I said.  “At least step up your game.  Give us a quivering lip.  Change your posture, here, like this…”

I adjusted her stance, having her draw her shoulders together, hands clasped in front of her.  I changed the angle of her chin.  Kenzie made her lip quiver, then said, “This could be the last thing we do as a team.”

I shook my head.  “Too much.”

“B.S., by the way, because we’re more likely to fizzle out than just stop today.  Unless this is a huge fuckup,” Chris said.  “Try harder.”

“It’s illegal,” Byron said.

Her composure broke.  “Come on!  It’s too much and it’s not enough and it’s illegal?  Cut me some slack!  You know I’d do something quasi-illegal for any and all of you, any time.”

“That’s not a good thing!” Sveta said.

“It’s also fully illegal, not quasi-illegal,” Byron pointed out.  “Breaking and entering, criminal trespass.”

“But it is a good thing, right?” Kenzie asked.  “Actually, it’s very much a good thing because you’re good guys.  You wouldn’t ask me unless you thought it was for the greater good.   And I’m asking you because I think this is for the greater good.  I’m asking for the benefit of a doubt.”

“I have so many doubts when it comes to you,” Chris said.

“Ha ha,” Kenzie said, smirking.  “Keep teasing.  I bet I can shoot you at least three times and give you a wedgie with my eyehook before you can transform.”

“You’re only proving my point.”

“Kenzie,” I said.  “You can’t hold back on this for the dramatic potential when it’s illegal.  Dish.”

She fidgeted.

“I think I found something.  I want to see with my cameras, and I want you guys to be a part of it.  If you aren’t, then I might not be able to explain it after.”

I looked at the others.

“It might be big,” Kenzie said.

“You’re, how did you put it?  Mostly sixty percent sure it’s maybe totally worth it?” I asked.

“Something like that.  Fifty…seven percent sure.”

“Alright,” I said.  “I’ll try this.  If the others don’t want to, I’m willing to risk it, since I have people I can ask for help.”

“I’ll come,” Sveta said.

“I was good to go at the start,” Chris said.  “I was less convinced the more you talked, Kenz.”

“Ha ha.”

“I’ll hang back,” Byron said.

He was the only one to duck out.  He followed us, up until we reached the destination, and then went for a walk around the block.

The building was a nice place, with brass capped white pillars at the outside.  It looked like a hotel, stately, but there was no sign of any occupancy and the wear and tear of age that I’d noted earlier seemed to have caught the outside, leaving it dusty and plastered with a few pieces of trash that had blown up against the building face and then stuck there with residual grime, dust, and rain.

“This place has a keypad lock,” Kenzie said.  “I was thinking of the shopping center, that would work too, but getting inside would be hard.  Instead…”

She slapped a box the size of a smartphone onto the side of the front door keypad, tapped it once, and then pushed the door open.

“It’s concerning just how naturally you did that,” I said.

“Pshh.”

I helped her lift the box.

“What’s concerning is that she probably spent four hours building that, instead of looking up one of the thousands of tutorials online on how to break a keypad lock,” Chris said.

“One and a half hours, thank you very much.  Except it was closer to three because I was splitting my attention between watching television, homework, and building that.”

“So pretty close to four hours, then?  Or are you doing that thing where you took three hours to get it technically finished, and another half an hour to build a nice case that matched the outfit you were going to wear today?”

Kenzie sighed.

“Or was it forty five minutes?  Was it an actual hour?  Was I actually right on the nose with my guess about it taking four hours total?”

“It was twenty minutes to build the case, you booger.  I made resin and glassworking machines since I like my work to look nice and I make a lot of lenses.  It cut down on the time, even if it wastes material if I’m not paying attention.”

“I was close,” he gloated.

“You were sorta close, you booger.”

Sveta let her hand drop to the floor.  She brought it back up, a cigarette butt clasped between two fingers.

“People have been here,” I said.

“They might still be here,” Sveta said.

“Hmmm,” Kenzie said.  She consulted her phone.  “This way.”

‘This way’ was to the penthouse, which took up the entirety of the fourth floor.  The stately, crimson-carpet, white-pillar look was in full force for the open concept room.

The window was open and the fierce wind blew the sheer curtains into the room.  Even the heavier crimson velvet curtains were moving.

Cigarettes littered the floor by the window.  The wind had blown them and the ash across the floor, and moisture or humidity had given the cigarettes and their ash enough dampness to run and stain the tiled floor beneath them.

Kenzie indicated for the box to go down.  We eased it to the floor.

“I hope this works,” she said.

She traced her finger along the pattern at the top of the box, zig-zagging across the surface.

Colored particles, each spherical and about an inch across, began to fill the room.  It was seemingly random at first, but slowly, patterns began to emerge.

“So.  My focus is on space, not time, and this is wonky,” she said.  “So, initial capture is going to be all impressions since the date I specified.”

Each figure was a smear that filled the room to the point things got dark.  Skin-tone spheres began to cluster into groupings that looked like faces, but where one person walked across the room, every space that their face had occupied began to get the dots.

The room filled to the point that it began to get dark.  The faint ambient glow of each dot became more apparent.

“This is messy,” Chris said.

“Yep.”

Finer dots began to appear, piercing the larger ones and replacing them in clusters.  It took minutes, and I was reminded of using the internet in recent months, when the servers were first going online.  Each image load had taken twelve passes, each pass taking a minute or two.

It wasn’t only resolution that mattered, though.  Each person had been in the room for extended periods of time, and each one was a smear of every action and movement they’d taken while in the space.

I folded my arms, walking around and through images, looking for ones where a face stuck out without smearing one way or the other.

“Color isn’t accurate, by the way,” Kenzie said.

“Good to know,” I said.

One face, a woman, strawberry blonde, with one tattooed arm.  I could see the impression she’d left where she had slept on the edge of the bed, but had climbed off the bed on the opposite side.

I could see other activity, with a lot of flesh tones.

Going by profile, there were two men, and there was another woman who wasn’t present much.

“And… resolution is as good as it’s going to get,” Kenzie said.  “But some are sharper than others, where one person or thing was still for a very long time.  Sleeping faces and stuff.”

I peered down at the sleeping face of the woman.

“Who are these guys?” I asked.

“Give me… five, ten minutes.  Maybe fifteen or twenty.  I want to sweep and see what we can pick up.”

Thin lines that formed cubes began to dance around the room, seemingly at random.  Where each cube touched a face, they began to roll along the track formed by each blurry caterpillar of merged images, pausing now and again.

There was one, however, that wasn’t looking for faces.  It moved along the chest of dressers, pausing on the bible that lay on one shelf.  It went over to the television, then the VCR.  The longer it wandered, the more frantic and jerky it seemed to get.

It settled on the box Kenzie and I had hauled into the room.

“Oh my god, you stupid box,” Kenzie said.  “No, I do not need you to find yourself.”

She kicked the box.

The cube-frame continued to dance around the room.

“You know you’re absolutely terrifying, right?” Chris asked.

“You can turn into a spider-face.  You can turn into a blob of brain tissue and tentacles.  You have a rage form,” Kenzie said.

“And yet you’re way scarier than I am.”

“Who are these people?” Sveta asked.

I continued to walk around the room, studying the men.  The other woman was too blurry to make out, her visits too fleeting.  From the way one man danced around the door, he might have repeatedly gone out with her.

Dark hair, dark clothes, pale face, dark eyes or sunglasses, for her.

One man had a red hat, it looked like.  The other was bald.

While I stared, the door opened.  Byron came in.

“Change your mind?” Chris asked.

“I saw the dots outside.  I came to see what you were doing,” Byron said.

“I’ll clean that up before anyone else notices,” Kenzie said.  “Probably picking up birds.”

She fiddled for a bit.

“No, stupid box!” Kenzie said.  The cube-frame had settled on the box again.  She kicked the box twice.

“Watch.  You’re going to destroy that thing through your percussive maintenance,” Chris said.

“Am not.  I know how it works.  Aha!  Thank you, box.”

The cube-frame had settled on the table by the window.  A silver and black smear covered most of the table.  Now the cube danced through the smear.

“Aaaand isolating,” she said.  “I’m going to pull out the best images, going by what seems to be the most accurate.  Medians and modes.”

The  woman’s image at the edge of the bed remained, while the rest of her disappeared.

There was another image of her on the bed.  She was in the middle of coitus with the bald man.

Sveta made a sound as she saw it, and moved to block Kenzie’s eyes.  When the eyehook looked over Sveta’s head, she pulled it down.

“I need to see to take it down.  There.  We don’t need that, thank you,” Kenzie said.  She tapped the top of the box.  The image disappeared.

“You’re going to be so much scarier when you’re older,” Chris said.

“Well,” Kenzie said.  “Probably.  I’m hoping to get a handle on things before then.”

“Breaking and entering and getting footage of people in bed isn’t progress,” Byron said.

“This is important,” Kenzie said.  Her expression was serious.

We had our images.  Kenzie had saved three to four images of each person, as they stood in the room.

The strawberry blonde with tattoos down her arm wore a cat mask and a bodysuit, as she leaned against the wall.  The bald man wore war paint.

The man with the dyed red hair was someone I’d met before, if only briefly.  He was the smoker, and he’d slept sitting up in the armchair.

“Kingdom Come,” I said.  “I ran into him at the community center.”

“Yep,” Sveta said.  “Might explain why Norwalk went south.”

I nodded.

There was no ID or good resolution on the woman at the door.  Too much movement, not enough of a stay.

The images weren’t a snapshot.  The woman and Kingdom Come had been captured sleeping.  The bald man had tossed and turned too much to be captured at any one point while he slept, so the best resolution was when he’d sat eating.   Even though the images froze in time, they were out of sync, each one at a different moment.

“You knew who they were already,” I said.

“I had some idea.  This place and the mall were the big locations where they made calls to and from, in the big network of call locations for this group,” Kenzie said.

On the table by the window, the blur had solidified into a concrete image.  It was clearest of them all, to the point it looked real.  Human faces moved and adjusted, but the rectangle was static in shape, inflexible.

It was the tinker device that had blown up the portal.  This would presumably be the one that had successfully been used on the Norwalk portal.

“You wanted to rope us into this by showing us this scene,” I said.  “It’s a lead.  A big lead.”

“Yeah,” Kenzie said.

“You’re not pulling our legs?” Chris asked.

“This was really tedious to do,” she said.  “If I was going to pull your legs or try to get you all on board as a team, I’d have done something easier and more fun.  More convincing, probably.”

“Don’t be dishonest to get us to stay together,” I said.

“Okay.  I wasn’t dishonest this time.  This is real.”

We walked around the room, looking at the culprits.

“Um.  Did it work?”

“Yes,” Sveta said.

“Yep,” Chris said.

“Fuck yeah, this worked,” I said.  “I want to get these assholes.”

I glanced at Byron and I saw him nod.

Kenzie didn’t smile or cheer.  Her expression was intense and unmoving, with something like a blue fire in her eyes as the box glowed before her.  “Perfect.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Eclipse – x.8

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

She could see the group of kids at their usual hangout spot.  It was her habit to go out in the late evening, when the rest of the town was asleep, and to keep out of the way the rest of the time, but her cupboards had been bare and she’d felt her sanity fraying even more around the edges.

She held a spike of twisted, condensed metal, which was hooked through the straps of bags.  The length of the spike rested across her shoulders.  It was heavy and painful, but it beat destroying the stuff she’d grabbed.

She left the bags by the corner of a building, and she approached the group of kids.  Some of the younger teenagers stood up and backed away.  The oldest of them didn’t budge.  What was he called?  Fappy?

“Heya, Damsel,” Fappy said.

“Corrupting the youngest generation?” she asked.

“That’s my nephew, Connor, he’s only six years younger than me, though,” Fappy said.  “And that’s his stepsister Holly.  They’re staying with my parents because of family stuff.  Connor, Holly, this is Damsel of Distress.  Our local supervillain.”

At least they looked scared of her.

“I’m moving away to find work,” Fappy said.  “Retail stuff in a camera store.  Holly is going to get my room.”

“Work, huh?” Ashley asked.

“My parents lost patience with me and gave me thirty days to move out,” Fappy said, to her.  “I guess I’m taking Stan’s cue.”

“What did Stan do?”

“Oh, you don’t know?  I guess we haven’t seen you around.”

“I went to Mirelles, another town.  I caught something.  I was thinking about going to Brockton Bay, after Leviathan, decided to rest instead.”

“Aw, that sucks,” Fappy said.  “You okay now?”

“Yeah.  I’m tough,” she said.

She wasn’t, and she hadn’t really ‘caught’ anything.   A mundane scratch on her leg had become red and inflamed, and a use of her power hadn’t scoured away whatever was going on.  In a fit of frantic energy, she had taken one of the scraps of matter that had been left after a use of her power and cut into the scratch.  She had wanted to open it up enough that she could try to get her power inside and clear away the infection, but it hadn’t worked.  The infection had persisted and the leg wound had refused to heal.

Somewhere in the weeks of sweating it out and not being able to go out, the PRT had started looking for her.  She’d had to scare them off when she could barely stand.  Even now, grabbing food to fill her kitchen, she wasn’t at her best.

“Well,” Fappy said, “You know Stan, right?”

“Of course.”

“He got Amber pregnant.  I don’t think you’ve met her?  No.  Stan did the stand up thing and is getting his life together.  He’s got a job washing sheets and stuff in the hospital.  Which is great because he’s close to Amber.  She had to go in for a pregnancy related hip thing, and she’s not leaving until she has the kid so her leg doesn’t come off.  I don’t know how that works.  Am I boring you, talking about this stuff?”

She shook her head.

“The rest of us are getting around to it too, mostly.  We’re eighteen, nineteen, it’s about time we figure stuff out.”

“Well,” Ashley said.  She was a bit lost for words.  The stoner kids had been a fixture here for most of her life.  “Good for you.”

“It’s not all great.  Pete, you know Pete?”

She shook her head.

“He was there for the bank.  He’s been hanging out with Popcap since Stan took off.  They hopped on a bus to go down and join some messed up gang, talking about endless parties.  Stuff’s been pretty messed up since Leviathan hit.”

“It is.  Sorry about your friend,” she said.  Popcap was the most notorious meth dealer in the area.  She didn’t like him and he didn’t like her, and Pete spending time with the guy didn’t bode well for Pete.

Fappy shrugged.  He looked at his two relatives.  “Connor, Holly, don’t ever, ever spend time with Popcap or Pete.  Not even if they offer to buy you drinks or give you anything.”

“You said something about a bank?” Connor asked.

“Oh man.  That.  That was ages ago.  We tried to rob a bank with Damsel of Distress.  That did not go well.”

“You cracked under the pressure,” Ashley said.

“I guess.  We tried, right?”

“Mm,” she made a noncommittal sound.

“You guys were legendary at school,” one of the other guys said.

“We had so much detention.”

“Detention, for robbing a bank?” Connor asked.

“Because he talked about it at school,” the other guy said.  “Dumbass.  He had to go to court, but they ducked it.  School wasn’t as nice.”

“Don’t follow my example.  You don’t want to risk it, you two,” Fappy said.

A blue sedan with a tattered flag mounted on one of the windows passed down the road about a block away.  It slowed, and then honked the horn.

“Oh shit!” Holly said.

The car honked again.  It was an angry honk.

“Go,” Fappy said, and the two younger teenagers ran off.  Then, to Damsel, he said, “My mom.  She’s cool about most things, you know, she lets us cut school, but talking to you might push it.”

“I’ll go,” Ashley said.

“Actually, I, uh,” Fappy said.  He pointed.  “You mind?”

His intention was to walk with her.  They walked in the direction of where she’d stowed the bags.  Just the two of them.

“So, I know you disappear now and then.  Pete used to always look you up and try to see what you were doing.  Hometown cape pride, you know?”

She nodded.

“You keep coming back here.”

She didn’t immediately respond.  Familiar faces and places mattered in a way she couldn’t put to words, even if some of those places closed down or faces left, like the stoners were doing.  More practical was the fact that here, at least, she knew where to go.  Food, clothing, places she could head to if the PRT started acting like it knew where she was.

She wasn’t about to admit that, though.  The stoner kids were feckless and useless, but they looked up to her.

“Yeah, I guess I do.”

“It’s home, right?”

She shrugged.  It was home, she just wished it wasn’t.

“Right.  What I’m wondering is, you going to be around?  I’m thinking about my nephew and his stepsis.”

“I don’t know.  No plans right now.”

“Can you make sure Connor and Holly are left alone?  I don’t want them getting caught up in anything too shady, and Connor’s dad’s one of those guys who’ll take anything.  Connor’s got the DNA for that stuff, and Pete or Popcap might try when they get back.”

“I’m not in a position to see him or tell him what to do.  If he wants to do it, he’s going to do it when I’m not in town.”

“Fuck,” Fappy said.  “It’s fucked up, you know?  The guys that grow up seeing the worst side of that stuff still end up doing it.”

“It’s the way it is,” she said.

“I guess.  And I guess, um, hmm,” he didn’t seem to be able to find the words.

“I won’t take them out to rob any banks,” she said.  Seeing Fappy’s surprised expression, she said, “I noticed the subtext, when you said you wanted them left alone.”

“I don’t even know what subtext is,” he said.  He smiled.  “You and Stan were always the ones with brains.”

“It’s fine.  I don’t rob banks anymore,” she said.

“You’ve been quiet, the last long while.”

That, too, was hard to respond to.  It had been weeks dealing with being sick, no human contact except the voices on the television and radio, and communicating was hard.

“Good luck, doing whatever you end up doing,” she said.

“You too,” he said.

She bent down to pick up her hook and bags, pausing to clench her right hand.  She’d broken it after killing the giant four years prior, and it hadn’t healed quite right, despite her best efforts.

She grabbed the hook with her other hand, and her power kicked out, almost pushing it from her grasp.  It missed the bags but it damaged the corner of the wall.  Nothing more serious than what might happen if a car bumped into the siding.  That was fine.

“Hey,” Fappy called out.  “Damsel?”

She straightened, holding just the hook without the bags.

“I might never see you again.  It’s bugging me.  Should we have done anything different?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Fappy pulled off his hat and scratched at his hair.  “Should we have invited you to hang out or had a cigarette with you?  When Stan had the room setup in the garage, we watched videos.  Should we have had you over?  Would that have been weird?”

Having been sick, her defenses weren’t what they were supposed to be.  The questions were hard to hear.

“It would have been weird,” she said.  “The only thing you should have done differently was not fuck up the bank job.”

Fappy snorted and smiled.  “Yeah.  Sorry.”

She put the hook through the straps of the bags, then lifted it, shrugging her shoulders to make it comfortable.

She didn’t know Fappy’s real name.  She wondered if he had stopped using it, and if he had, when?

The town wasn’t a thriving one, and there wasn’t much traffic at ten o’clock at night.  She made her way down the street.  She was cold.  Another case of her defenses being down.  She hadn’t grabbed a lot of blankets, sheets, or towels, and now she regretted it.

There were streets that were okay, with houses in decent condition, but most were struggling.  Many had peeling paint, or siding that had come partially free in a bit of bad weather and never been fixed.  She walked past a car that had been left there for so long that the windshield was opaque with the effects of weather and bird shit.

Wind blew, and some junk mail from a recycling bin at the corner of the road danced across the road.  There was a paper bag on the top of a dusty car, however, that didn’t budge.

Ashley investigated – a poke with her hook showed that there were things inside, which helped keep the bag upright.  A drink of something blue, and a plastic bag.

She looked around.  Not a soul in sight.  A few places had lights on, and she saw one man that sat at his computer.  He hadn’t seen her and wasn’t watching her.

She moved the bags she was carrying to her hand, and then adjusted the hook, positioning it carefully before impaling the bag and the box of baked goods.

She hefted it, and carried things the rest of the way to her apartment.

The radio and television were on as she entered.  She walked around the hole in the floor- she had dropped one of the living room chairs into it to ensure she didn’t fall in.  Her bags went to the kitchen counter, which was missing a segment.

The largest bag was full of clothes that had been dropped off at the back of the thrift shop- she would take what she could wear and then take the bags back.  Wouldn’t do to have the place close down.  Other stuff she’d claimed from the pharmacy, with an eye to medication and personal needs.  She spiked the pharmacy stuff, then tossed it through the hole in the bathroom wall, so it sailed over the tub and to the base of the sink.

The last thing was food, also from the pharmacy, which was convenient because it tended to have the staples.   Peanut butter, tuna, bread, canned veg.  Everything went onto the counter, because the cupboards were a ruin and the fridge was something she tried to avoid damaging, because there were perishables like milk inside.

Once she had her bags sorted out, she investigated the paper bag, tipping it out.

The blue drink was, according to the label, a ‘Legendberry Electrolyte Sports Drink’.  There was a red drink below it.  The plastic bag that had been put in the paper bag was stuff from the drug store.  Pills for fever, lozenges, stuff for indigestion.

At the bottom of the paper bag was a box of eclaires.  The contents had been thrown around the box by her manhandling, the white cream smearing everything.

She left it there, walking over to the television.  Her routine had been thrown off by the early excursion, but the time was right.

Changing the channel was difficult, but she managed it, switching the television across thirty channels of static to the studying channel.

At this time, it was repeats of the homework help that was on at three in the afternoon and on.  People ages ten to eighteen could call in to ask questions.  Later, it would be the taped university courses.  Most of that went over her head, but she tried to watch all of the courses all the way through, with exceptions for when the courses were really, really dull or incomprehensible.

The sound of the television and the radio overlapped, but the radio was positioned on the floor.  A gentle kick sent it skidding into the next room.

She blasted off the top of the Legendberry drink and took a swig.  She winced, coughing, and put it down.

She grabbed an eclair, spearing it with her hook and then eating it off of the spike.

There was a part of her that wished Edict had given it to her in person.  She understood why she hadn’t- Ashley had been in a bad place when she’d run into them two months ago.

Still… getting sick enough that she had been worried for her own life had given her pause.

She wasn’t even sure what she would say or do, had Edict turned up.  To say ‘you win’?  No.  To ask questions?  No.

If nothing else, she could question Edict’s taste, sensibilities, parentage and mental state, for putting this Legendberry drink in the same bag with eclairs.

She left the eclairs alone, and focused on finishing the drink, wincing as she did so.

It was a gift.  It was supposed to help.  It wouldn’t be right to not finish it.

The sound of sirens made her head turn, the bottle still at her mouth.

Not coming for her.

She finished chugging the bottle, then gave the plastic its due punishment for existing by annihilating it with her power.

She would have to eat something before having her eclairs, or the aftertaste would ruin them.

More sirens.  That meant something had happened.  If something had happened- Edict or Licit would be there.  Maybe both.

What would she say or do?  Why did that matter?

She found herself pacing, and in the midway point between feeling just how weak she was after her spell of illness and the sound of the next siren, she found herself moving toward the door.

She would see what was going on.  This was her territory, technically, so it was important.  She would handle things, maybe talk to the pair, and she would tell Edict off for the combination of Legendberry and eclairs.

Maybe.

She grabbed her mask, recently fixed up, and put it on.

She stalked her way through the streets, avoiding the people who were stepping outside to see what was going on.

Fire trucks, ambulances, and police.  She could hear the differences in the patterns and sounds of the sirens.  For the first ten minutes, she was able to hear things and head toward the endpoint.  Here and there, an emergency vehicle would go down her street or a nearby street.

After that, there was nothing.  Whatever the emergency, there were no more sirens or easy indicators.

She wondered how the heroes did it, to get to scenes on time.

She explored, trying to find it, looking for any clues, and found nothing.  Her legs were tired, lacking stamina after her long period of illness, and she’d already gone for a walk earlier in the evening.  She took her time going back.

The headlights of a passing van illuminated her, and unlike the others, they didn’t stop illuminating her.  She stared through the light, shielding her eyes with her hand, and felt the pang and the click where that hand hadn’t healed right.

When it didn’t let up, she picked up her pace.

The van pulled into reverse, then drove away.

She made her way back, and by the last block, her weariness had been driven home.  Her calves were like stones, and every step was an effort.

Maybe a bath, to relax her legs.  It was important to find ways to treat herself.  It was a good day, to have a treat to go back to.  A bad day, to know that the stoners were leaving and the replacements would be so young and untouchable.  A good day, to be healthier again.  A bad day, to have this interruption to her homework advice show.

She reached her street, and she saw a van that might have been the same one she’d seen earlier.  Adrenaline helped her to push through the pain in her legs.

Nobody inside, with a lot of general garbage on the seats and floor.

If she had been able to drive, she told herself, her car would be immaculate.  Cars were expensive, and to have something nice and not take care of it?

She was tempted to destroy the thing.

She reached the side of the building and let herself inside.

There was the partially eaten eclair.  She could have that before starting dinner.

The radio, still faint in the other room, went quiet.

She grabbed the twist of condensed metal with the hook-shaped bend at the end.

“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”

A man’s voice.

Ashley walked around to see who was standing in her bedroom.

She recognized the man.  The beard, the hair that was greasy and pulled back away from his face.  The collared shirt that was only tucked in on the one side, the tuck apparently intended to hide the bloodstain on the corner of the shirt, failing because it had come partially untucked.

He had a tool belt on, but the belt only had knives in it.

Jack Slash.

“It’s been a crazy few weeks,” he said.

She considered her options.  She wasn’t well enough to fight.

She would have to be subtle, then.  If she could draw him in, get close enough that she could blast him before he could draw a knife-

She threw the hook back in the direction of the kitchen.  It wouldn’t matter anyway.

“I’m… honored,” she said.

“Are you?” he asked.

“You’re among the strongest, aren’t you?  There aren’t a lot who are as active as you for as long as you.”

She wasn’t used to flattering.  It felt off, coming out of her mouth, and from his smirk, she was left worrying that it was obvious to him.

“We have a high turnover,” he said.

“You’re royalty among parahumans.”

He chuckled.  “My predecessor was called King, believe it or not.  Don’t parents tell their children to behave and to clean by saying, ‘what if the Queen of England came to visit’?  Our unannounced visit could be like that, couldn’t it?”

Our.  He’d said ‘we’ earlier too.

Sure enough, there was another.  Bonesaw ducked under Jack’s arm to enter her hallway and approach the living room.

Ashley remained very still as she watched Bonesaw.  The girl walked over to the kitchen, passing Ashley.

She considered her options.  To blast Bonesaw out of existence.

She would die, doing that, and she didn’t want to die.

Bonesaw stood on her tiptoes for a moment before seeing the box of eclairs amid the other food.  She grabbed it, then collapsed into the armchair that had been pushed into the hole in the floor.  Her feet were on the floor above her and her face almost pointed up to the ceiling.

“You should ask before taking, Bonesaw,” Jack said.  “If all goes well, you want to have a good working relationship.”

“Can I, please?” Bonesaw asked.

“Yes,” Ashley said.  “Go ahead.  Leave me one.”

“Oh, of course.” Bonesaw had to work to get out of the chair and reach the counter.  She set the eclair down.

Working relationship, Jack had said.

“Someone who puts this many holes in walls has to be angry,” Jack said.  “Are you angry?”

Ashley shook her head.  She was, but years had dulled it.  She wasn’t about to admit to weakness, either way.

“It’s no way to live,” Jack said.  He touched the edge of the hole in the wall that led into the bathroom.

“You said working relationship.”

“I did.  Interested?”

“I’ve heard stories.  If I said yes, then… it could be a monkey’s paw wish, couldn’t it?”

“Go on,” Jack said.

“You would say you want to work with me.  I would say yes, and then Bonesaw could then turn me into a gun made of meat.  A living tool, working with you every time you pull the trigger.  Technically there is a working relationship.”

“A bit forced,” Jack said.

“The only real critic for your interpretation would be a gun made of meat.”

Jack smiled.  “We’re our own critics.  It’s a fact when you’re an artist or a… very violent, long-term performance artist.  We put the effort in, even if the one member of the audience isn’t in a place to tell the world.”

“Mm!” Bonesaw made a sound.  She held up a finger, while she finished chewing.  “Mm.  Sorry.  You know, I’ve only done that sort of thing once, making someone into something like a gun.”

Was it a mistake to give her ideas?

“I like that you thought of that,” Bonesaw said.  “You came up with something I haven’t done much.  Creative!”

“The theater matters,” Ashley said.  “Sometimes it’s all we have.”

“No,” Jack said.  “Oh no, I don’t agree at all.  We are so, so much more than that.  You realize that once you’ve seen a good number of people lose next to everything, theater included.  There’s something else that boils to the surface, once you’ve applied enough pressure.”

“Do you have an audience?” Bonesaw asked.

It was so hard to track all of this, the back and forth, the dialogue, and the subject-matter changes.

She focused on her end-goal.  To get Jack to let own his guard.  To blast him and then either get away or get Bonesaw too.

“I had one.  Small.  But I’m not as active as I once was.”

“If you joined us, the entire civilized world would pay attention to you,” Jack said.

She thought about agreeing.  The end-goal remained the focus.  Get close, destroy him.

But even in this scenario… she couldn’t.

“I don’t join.  I don’t serve under anyone.  I’m the one who leads, or I walk alone.”

“If you joined with the intention of taking my position as leader, you wouldn’t be the first, fifth, or even tenth,” Jack said.

Ashley shook her head.  “No.”

“A lot of people tell me no,” Jack said.  “It’s usually repeated over and over again, followed by a death rattle.”

Bonesaw snorted.  She was eating yet another of Ashley’s eclairs.

Ashley consoled herself by focusing on how Bonesaw could die.

The thought crossed her mind.  If she did this- if she found a way to get this kill, she would be celebrated.  Wasn’t there a cash payout for anyone who killed these people?  No questions asked?

“No,” Ashley said.  “If you want your performance…”

“Performance art.  The message.”

“Give me an order,” she said.  “A task.  I’ll do it, or I’ll try to do it.  In exchange, you leave me alone.  I don’t join, you get your murder and mayhem.  I could be your distraction.”

“Hi, Siberian!” Bonesaw said.

Ashley turned to look.  The front door.  The Siberian was there.  No costume, no clothes, no theater, words, or even posture, not in this moment.  Just the woman and an imposing presence.

“I’d offer you one of these eclairs, but I know you prefer lady fingers,” Bonesaw said.  She tittered.

“Any trouble?” Jack asked.

The Siberian shook her head.

“Then we have a little while,” he said.  He looked at the Siberian.  “We’ll talk details later, after the others catch up.”

“I thought she didn’t talk,” Ashley said.

Jack smiled.

“If you want mayhem, I’ll give you mayhem.  It’s something I’m good at.  If you want violence, I can give you violence,” Ashley said.  “I’ve taken a boy’s arms and legs and I watched him bleed out.  Name a target and I can do that.  I’ve killed.”

“I don’t want mayhem,” Jack said.  “I don’t want violence.  I don’t want killing.”

“Oh, shoot!” Bonesaw said.  “We’ve reaaaaaaally been messing up, then.”

“I want to change people,” Jack said.  “I want to show what’s beneath the surface when things are taken away.  We see it in the public when they’re scared or outraged.  We see it in the individual when we take away everything they have.”

Ashley’s eyes narrowed.

“You don’t have much at all,” Jack said, he looked at Ashley’s apartment.  “What lies beneath must be so close to boiling up when there’s so… so very little surface.”

Ashley had a hard time responding.  She was tempted to do something suicidal and she only barely held herself back.  “You’re not convincing me, Jack.”

“What would we have to offer you, for you to agree to give up that very little you have?  I would be interested in seeing the inversion.”

Ashley thought back to earlier, when she’d considered talking to Edict and Licit.

“Her hand is injured,” Bonesaw said.  “I could fix your hand.”

“I doubt it,” Ashley said.  Her power crackled as she moved her fingers.

“Wonky powers?  Not to worry, I think I can fix that.  As thanks for the eclairs.”

Ashley was given pause.

“An audience, a fix, and again, I must remark on how the defining feature of your decor is the holes in the wall.  There’s an anger to that.”

“I’m not angry,” Ashley said.

“Not angry at all?  Living like this, when you clearly have so much pride?  There’s nobody you find time to spend hating or resenting, every day?  We would give you resolution for that.”

She thought of Accord.  Of Boston.

“Someone,” Jack said.  He smiled, walking closer.  “Multiple someones?”

“I made my offer,” she said.

“I’m refusing,” Jack said.  “My counteroffer: I’ll give you everything you want, with the exception of this one thing you cling to.  This… construction of rules and limits, that you will not bend the knee to anyone.”

“You can’t give me everything I want.  I want the world,” Ashley said.  “I want territory of my own that I rule, and once I have it, I’ll expand it. I will want more.”

“Believe it or not,” Jack said.  “I want the world too.  I expect to have it in two year’s time, and when I do, you can take it from me.”

“He’s not lying,” Bonesaw said.  “It’s supposed to be a prophecy.”

“They’re trying to kill me as if it’s true,” Jack said.  He smiled.

“Bam,” Bonesaw said.  “Clear path for you.  You want the world and here’s a nice, obvious way to take it.  It won’t be easy, but hey!  Woohoo!”

Ashley shook her head slowly.

The goal.  She needed to keep it in mind.

Her emotions were getting away from her.

“You don’t have many options,” Jack said.

“I don’t know,” she said, even though the answer was closer to a ‘no’.  If she could convince them she could be swayed… to gradually change her mind…

Her heart pounded.

“Here,” Bonesaw said.  “I have an idea.  Because you gave me permission to have the treats, I’ll fix your arms.  You can try it out, and you can see how it feels.  This is super easy.”

“Maybe,” she said, to continue her narrative of being convinced.

“It’s really, really easy,” Bonesaw said.  “I have most of what we’d need, since I did work on my own hands recently.”

Bonesaw approached.  Ashley hesitated, backing away a bit.

“Come on.  This way,” Bonesaw said.  She approached the kitchen counter, while Ashley remained where she was.

Bonesaw picked up the twist of metal with the hook.  “This is neat.”

“Leftovers from my power.”

“That’s great, that’s something I can use for the infrastructure!  Here, come, come.  Put your hands down on the counter.  I’ll show you.  It’s so simple it’s elegant!”

The Siberian moved, approaching.  Ashley wheeled around.

“The Siberian lives by the principle of taking everything she wants, with no regard for civilization’s niceties,” Jack said.  “Bonesaw pursues her art as inspiration demands.  They are nobility as much as I am, with long track records.  The entire point is to have whatever you desire.  If at any point you see something you want or don’t want, you say the word.”

“Come on,” Bonesaw said.  She gave Ashley a push.  She reached into her bag and pulled out a metal tube.  “This is the first thing.  I’ll show you how this works.  We can channel your power.  Just put your hands on the counter there.”

There was an imminent threat, with the Siberian so near.  What was her route.  Jack was too far away to blast.

To hit Bonesaw and use the recoil from that to throw herself at Jack?

Would the Siberian intercept her, tackling her in the air?  The woman was supposed to be fast.

She let Bonesaw move her arm, putting it down on the table.  She would cooperate until there was an opening.

A heavy impact at her arm made her legs buckle, sharp pain shooting up to her shoulder and neck.  A cleaver.  Bonesaw had brought down a cleaver on her forearm.  It had sunken into the bone.

Ashley reached around with her other hand, and didn’t make it the full distance.  Jack moved his hand, and the skin of Ashley’s arm split.

A razor blade gleamed in the dimly lit living room.  Jack had been holding it between two fingers.

Bonesaw hauled the cleaver out, and Ashley dropped to her knees from the pain.  The cleaver came down again, and cut the rest of the way through the bone.

She’d hesitated, and it had cost her.  When dealing with people like this, like Accord, she couldn’t afford any weakness, and yet the weakness was built-in.

Jack drew and swung a cleaver of his own.

Ashley was aware of Bonesaw saying ‘thank you’, and of the fact that there were words that followed that statement.  She didn’t register them.

Her consciousness slipped away, in shock, the lingering exhaustion of her recent ailment, and the long exhaustion of the past several years.

She’d hesitated.  She’d gone too long between the start and the end of this encounter without considering the task she needed to accomplish.  She’d wanted what Jack was selling to her, and now she would have it.

Dreams.  Incoherence.

Too much was still vague.

There had been a time when there were the bad days and the days she dreaded the bad days.

Then… just bad days.

Ashley stared at her mangled hands as she sat in the car.  Her fingers were blades, long enough that she could stand up and have her fingertips touch the ground.  Her power was wholly under her control and yet she still couldn’t reach out to touch anything.

Jack, as far as she could tell, was keeping to his promise.  He’d told her that if she had something she wanted or didn’t want, she only had to ask.

That they’d taken away her ability to speak was the monkey’s paw part of it.  Jack had made a comment about her tendency to rant and rave, and he’d said that had to go, with all the other parts of her act.

In exchange, though it wasn’t an exchange she’d asked for, they’d let her communicate their destination.  She climbed out of the car.

Her emotions flailed through her like taut steel cables that had been cut, whipping out in every direction, but nothing changed.

The building was nice.

“After you,” Jack told her.

She moved her hand, her fingers flexing.  The components locked up before she could position to blast Jack.

“You wanted this,” he said.

She had.

Her claws flexed as she blasted.

Perfect control.  She could even manage the recoil.

She took the door in entirety, then stepped into the building.

She saw artwork, likely expensive, and she demolished it with a slash of her claws.

There was a kind of catharsis in this.  Jack, perhaps, would get what he wanted, at this rate.

The other Nine moved through the house, checking rooms, getting ahead.  Damsel only walked in a measured pace.

There were capes defending the area.  Accord’s people that he whored out to other teams.

She kicked at the door that one held behind, denying her cover, and stabbed her in the shoulder.  She walked forward, her steps measured, and the woman backed away, trying to keep the blades from penetrating deeper.

When the woman retreated through the doorway and stopped because a railing above a staircase stopped her, Damsel blasted her, focusing the recoil by controlling the strength of the blast, pushing the woman out and over the railing.

There was a large muscular man with a mask ducking low beside the door, using the stairs to be especially low profile.  As she saw him, he lunged.

She slashed him with the power dancing around the blades.  He tumbled down the stairs.

A laboratory.  Blasto worked within.

He was in Accord’s house, with a proper lab.  Had he been working with Accord, even back in her first proper visit to Boston?

The anger made her almost nauseous.

Bonesaw came skipping down the stairs. winking at Ashley as she took the stairs two at a time.

“I know you!” Bonesaw proclaimed.

“I know you too, Bonesaw” Blasto said.

“Nice lab.”

“It’s not mine.”

“Man, it’s… this is nice stuff.  Being constantly on the move, you miss out on stuff like this.”

“My old lab wasn’t this good,” he said.  Then he turned to look at Ashley.

“Who’s that?”

The words chilled her.

“Damsel of Distress, with some modifications by yours truly.  Damsel for short.  Better at controlling her power now.”

“Hi Damsel,” Blasto said.

Damsel looked at him, and she tried to speak, to comment.  The sounds were strangled.

He didn’t remember her.  She’d killed his giant and- what?  Had someone else claimed credit?  Was one of her crowning achievements a forgettable moment for another?

She was a nonentity.  Even here, Bonesaw was the focus.

Other memories.

To be in the tank, gel-like fluid flowing into her nose and mouth.  Drugged, paralyzed, her body was slow to listen to the instructions her brain tried to convey, to hold her breath, to fight this.  Her power had already been locked out.  It had never been hers, but now it wasn’t hers at all.  The switch was in Bonesaw’s hands.

The fluid reached her lungs and she didn’t drown, but she couldn’t breathe either.  Her heart kept beating, the drug kept increasing its hold on her.

Floating in the tank, she remembered things that hadn’t occurred in the one hour this version of herself had been awake.

Then the fluid began to heat up.

Chaos, incoherence, death and destruction.

There were other things.

The horizon glowed gold.  Jack’s end of the world was coming to pass.

She had surrendered when Riley had.  The surrender was because a switch had been flicked, but that was the external control.  Internally, even though every memory in her head was an unpleasant one, she was relieved.  She was glad to stop.

The relief had been short lived.

She had died in Blasto’s lab.  A hero she didn’t even know had cut her in half.

She had metaphorically died when her core identity had been taken from her.  Her hands, her voice.  The theater had been all she’d had and she’d lost that.

She had died in Bonesaw’s lab.  Over and over again, she had died.  Many times, she had been boiled alive.  Her head had been cut open, the brain poked at while she was awake.

Seven times, she had died, since leaving the lab.

Now she reached out, and bladed fingers closed around bladed fingers.  They watched the world end.

She turned to her companion.

She saw her expression, her hair long, pupils absent in eyes surrounded by heavy and roughly applied decoration.  It was startling to see, and her water bottle slipped from stiff fingers.

“What did you do to your hair?” the other Ashley asked.

“I felt the need for a change,” Ashley responded.

Her counterpart reached up.

“Hands down,” the Patrol guard said.

“It’s fine,” Ashley said.  “She won’t hurt me.”

Bladed fingers settled on either side of her face, enough pressure applied that a strong wind might have been enough to push the threshold and see blood drawn.

It was reassuring to see the only other person left in existence that understood, that she couldn’t hurt with her power, should a freak accident happen.  It was terrifying.

Her other self had the long hair, had wanted to keep the bladed fingers.  The girl wore a long black dress and Ashley wore clothes that, while predominantly black, were more fit for the tribunal.

Riley had given them both the same options.  Ashley didn’t know what had led to her other self responding a fraction before she did.  Little decisions and situations cascaded.  They’d been together at first.  Her other self had carried on with their old ways.

She had a voice, the claw-hands gave her the ability to master her power, with no misfires.  She’d lost control all the same.

Ashley had seen the video where her other self had been arrested.  Every road led to death or ruin, it seemed.  She’d known she needed to find another way.

She’d made a decision, then.  Finally, finally, she had put herself at the mercy of others.  That had led to the diagnosis.

Now she was here and… somehow she wasn’t upset.

“Come in,” her other self said.  “I can’t believe you did that to your hair.”

“It’s so much lighter,” Ashley said.

She stepped into the apartment.  The device at her ankle beeped.

Supposedly, even if she used her power to blast it, the charge would take off her foot.  The same would happen if she tried to run.

She turned to look at her keepers, the men from the patrol.  The goofy boy in uniform that wanted to impress Victoria.

Past them was the complex.  With so much of the world empty, their wardens had decided to build a small contained facility in the middle of nowhere, with no civilization for a long, long way in every direction.  Powers helped to close the gaps.

“Good luck,” Jester said.

“Take care, Jester,” she said.

She watched them walk away before shutting the door.  Her hand was stiff as she pushed the door shut.

She carried her box through the apartment to the kitchen.

“We have so much catching up to do,” her other self said.  “Tea?”

“Oh, you have tea.  That’s good.”

“Sit.  Put your things down.  You do know we can share clothes, you didn’t have to bring your own.”

Ashley sat, setting the box on the table.  She could hear the television.  It had been left on in the background.

She hadn’t even had a television at her own apartment.

“I brought some favorites.  You can wear them too, if you don’t cut them with those fingers of yours.”

“Criticize me when you can move your hands properly,” her other self said.  Long bladed fingers plucked a teapot from the top of the cabinet.  “I don’t use my teapot much.  I put the teabags in a mug.”

“I did the same thing.”

“I take it you lost your trial?”

“The pre-trial proceedings,” Ashley said.  “Lose is the wrong word.  They sent me here because we get along, and because space is limited.  Too many  parahumans were arrested recently.  One of them should be joining this complex.”

“Ah, you have a friend.”

“I have a lot of friends,” Ashley said.  “I’ve had… a lot of good days, with bad days I can manage because I know more good days are coming.”

The other Ashley made an amused sound.

“I’ve wondered,” Ashley said.  “Did the scientists reach out to you too?”

“They tried.  I wouldn’t cooperate with them.”

“Then… you got what I was doing just now.  Is that only because you come from the same place I do?”

“You want to know if we share anything.”

“Do we?”

Her other self ignored the question at first, but it didn’t feel like an insult.  Ashley knew what it was to digest, to consider.

“I have memories that sharpen,” her other self said.  “A small few are memories from the files.”

“The files,” Ashley said.  “Edict and Licit.”

“Bonesaw implanted us with memories, using a framework she got from the books.  The ‘inciting incident’ for our powers.  The paperwork surrounding our trips to other cities.”

“The gaps filled in.  Some things, it reached for other available, familiar sources.”

“It’s vague,” her other self said.  “But I didn’t dig too hard.”

There.  Answers.

Hardly worth being imprisoned, but interesting.

“Do you have a recollection of… the fields?” her other self asked, as she prepared the tea.  She had no need to ask Ashley’s preferences.  Her back was to Ashley.  “A memory that doesn’t belong to anyone- not any person.  A thing.”

Ashley met her other self’s eyes.  The questions that she was being asked were the same questions she had planned to ask.  She nodded, and she studied her other self’s face.  She couldn’t tell if she was relieved or not to have the answer.

She took the tea that was given to her, being careful with her uncooperative hands and the hot drink.  “A great plain of red-black crystal, one facet cracking and then mending in the span of a few seconds?  The creaking sound and the dull static?  It’s a recollection that isn’t exclusive to us.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Eclipse – x.7

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

“It’s drawing attention to the city.”

“Everyone here was doing that already,” Rotten Apple said.  “They sent everyone they could spare, you think they’re going to send more.”

“There’s more nuance than that,” Detente said.  “It’s taller than any of the Endbringers.  People will stop what they’re doing to respond.”

“That’s my concern, not yours,” Blasto said.  “If they aren’t here already, then they’re going to kill my giant and leave.  You’re fine, it’s chill.”

“It is not ‘chill’,” Accord said.  “That phrasing makes me want to kill something.”

“You’re imagining shit,” Blasto said.  “Making up hypothetical situations, then treating them like they’re real.  Not many new people have showed up, and a lot of people have actually left, since some of the worst elements were weeded out.  They haven’t brought out the big guns and none of those nonexistent guns have been pointed at any of you.  So chillax.”

Accord made a noise.  “I know why they haven’t gone on the offensive.  You haven’t acted yet-”

“And I won’t act without cause,” Blasto interrupted.

“-And they have thinkers.  You worked the genetic material of people with powers into your giant, to give it the strength to stand despite its own weight.  It’s tougher than it would appear.”

Blasto smiled.  “Yeah.”

“What do you intend to do with it?” Damsel asked.

“Hm?” Blasto asked.  He looked surprised that she’d spoken up.  “It’s there as a threat and a symbol.  Some of the villains and vigilantes I recruited are going to stick around, others are leaving or they’ll rotate in.  They’re all there in case someone comes after us.  The territory is on lock.  South Boston is ours, with some office space given to some other villains.”

“What if we wanted to challenge that?” Burning Sensation asked.  One of the small-timers.  Punks.

“If you want to challenge our claim, talk to the giant first,” Rotten Apple said.  “You’ll have to deal with him one way or another.”

“Yeah,” Burning Sensation replied.  “No thanks.”

“You’re keeping it out of Deathchester?” Damsel asked.

“Sure, why not?” Blasto asked.

“Then I’m not going to take issue with it,” she said.  “Carry on.”

“Sure,” Blasto said.

“There will be opposition,” Accord said.  “I hope that when it happens, there won’t be too much damage.  If it reaches us or makes doing business harder, then we’ll be forced to act.”

“I’m sure a smart pair of guys like you think you have a way to answer this.”

“We do,” Detente said, “But our current plans don’t require it.  We’re leaving.”

“You’re leaving Boston?” Taper asked.  Another one of the small timers.

“We’re leaving the south-end, south-Boston, Roxbury areas,” Detente said.  “This is not the only moot that we’ve been attending.  We’ve been talking to other groups and we arranged a compromise.”

“What did you assholes do?” Burning Sensation asked.

“We’ve traded territory.  Much as the Four moved to Hyde Park, we will take Charlestown.  Our numbers have swelled, and in the interest of building connections and ensuring that we can take Charlestown without any incident, we’ll be loaning out our capes to other factions.”

“What the fuck is that about?” Burning Sensation asked.  “Who?”

“The Mystic’s Mass, Morning Glory, the Unmasked, who do wear masks, and perhaps most notably, Dark Society,” Detente said.

Ashely tensed.  That last one was a name that had come up in the noise of the television and the radio that had always been playing in her place in Stafford.  She’d heard of the others since coming to Boston, but she hadn’t imagined she would have to deal with them.

That time felt so long ago.

“What the fuck?” Burning Sensation asked.

“They’ll be arriving soon,” Detente said.  “Our powered soldiers will be unpaid liaisons or ambassadors for these four groups, helping against any group or force that isn’t already receiving our aid.”

“Make your plans quickly with this information in mind,” Accord said.

“Against any force that isn’t receiving your aid.  You mean us,” Ashley said.

“Clearly,” Detente said.

Was this what the Director had wanted to tell her?  That this was coming?

“The plan had been for each of the four groups to take one of the four territories up for consideration here,” Detente said.  “But with Blastgerm having made the play it did, adjustments may be in order.”

Ashley clenched her fist, power crackling, as she saw the headlights on the road that looked over the beach.

Lots of lights.

They were professional, organized teams like the ones she’d been whittling at for the past three weeks.  People who had been active in the background, that she had told herself she wouldn’t need to deal with.

Mystic’s Mass, with a vague and dark religious theme, thorny halos mounted on their costumes, pointed hoods, and swords with cross iconography worked into their handles.  Eight of them, with more, presumably unpowered individuals by the cars.

Morning Glory, less stylish.  Angel had mentioned them, which was what tipped Ashley off to the fact that they were mostly or wholly Irish.  There wasn’t much in the way of ‘morning’ or ‘glory’ about them, from an aesthetic standpoint.  Their leader reminded her of her dad, in the way he held himself and his stature, but he had red hair, he had a mask on, and he had bright blue floral tattoos up his arms, in stark contrast to his masculine image.  Five capes.  More by the cars.

The Unmasked wore masks with little in the way of eyeholes or airholes for breathing.  Self-harm seemed to be the theme.  One had a noose around his neck, the excess length wound tight enough that flesh bulged between the coarse rope.  There was one with nails driven between every joint of their hands.  The leader, or the one who the rest seemed to be deferring to, had nails driven through the hard surface of the mask and into his eye sockets.  Hands had strips of flesh peeled away, scars, or a combination of both where the damage from flaying had been clearly cauterized.  Sometimes there were designs, sometimes it looked like they’d just cut and pulled away as much flesh as they could.  Five capes.

And then there was Dark Society.  White bandages hid their heads and faces, their hands or arms.  The rest of them was covered in fine clothing in maroons, forest greens, royal purples and midnight blues.  The bandages were marred- not with blood or anything from being hurt, but with what looked like ink applied with thumbs and fingers.  A smear for each eye, making each one blurry, inconsistent and vague in the light of the fire.

Three members of Dark Society approached the fire, but more of the bandaged heads stared down from the road above the beach, peering with the black ink eyes.  One had a smiley face of the same ink fingerpainting, and something told her that he was the leader, not even attending this meeting in person, but watching.

“A bonfire?” the leader of Morning Glory asked.  “We’re going to have to change venues.”

“The last venue burned down,” Detente said.  “The culprit was dealt with, but the groups couldn’t decide on a neutral territory.”

Damsel was tense as she watched the groups make their way down the slope.  Burning Sensation and his group backed away- they hadn’t been that close to the fire, but they still ceded ground.  Taper followed suit.

They were lesser.

The Mullen Brothers were next to walk away.  They’d had a voice at previous moots, but they weren’t contenders.

Damsel remained where she was as the villains filled the space around the fire.

“She is?” one of the members of the Mass asked.

“I’m-”

“Damsel of Distress,” Detente said.  “Dorchester.”

“I can speak for myself,” Damsel said.

“I wouldn’t,” Rotten Apple said.

“Those of us who have been here for the past two weeks know the state of your common sense, Rotten Apple,” Damsel said.

Rotten Apple smiled.  “You’re such a pain in the ass.”

“I’m more than a pain in the ass,” Damsel said.  “Rest assured.”

Her words were confident, but she was very aware of the maimed Maskless capes to her left, close enough that they could have seized her by the neck, using a hand with nails through it.  Morning Glory stood to her right, a man in a blue tunic with a blue mask over three-quarters of his face stood with his arm almost touching hers.

She clasped her hands in front of her, telling herself it wasn’t defensive- it was her moving her arm so an errant burst of power wouldn’t take a chunk out of the man.

“Enough,” Accord said.  “Let’s keep to the rules of order.  The night is only so long and we don’t have time to waste on the bickering of children.”

“I’m assuming our first priority is standing out in the water there,” the leader of the Mass said.

“You would assume correctly,” Accord said.  “Blastgerm claims South Boston so long as the giant stands.  They engage in the low-level drug trade, some robbery, and if their claims about their subordinate capes are to be believed, they’ll maintain some ideological commitments as well.”

“Protecting nature and all that shit,” Blasto said.

“Are we going to war, Blastgerm?” the leader of Morning Glory asked.

“If we have to.  That big guy is strong, you know.  If you fight him, you won’t come out unscathed.  If you have some injured and others don’t, then that could be the point where the other people standing around this fire come after you.”

“Would you compromise?” Detente asked.

“Blastgerm gives up a fifth of South Boston, they share the rest?” Blasto asked.  “No fighting, loose alliance, we all defend our borders from the outside?”

“We could discuss that,” the leader of Morning Glory said.  “Speaking for my group, we had our hearts set on getting one quarter.  Now it’s twenty percent?  Give us a share of your revenue.”

“Say please,” Rotten Apple said.

“Please, Blastgerm,” the red-headed man said, and his accent was stronger as he injected a joking tone into his voice.  “Might we have five percent of your territory and a five percent cut of proceeds?”

Rotten Apple smiled.  “Five percent is a lot.”

“It’s a nice even number, isn’t it?”

“One point two five percent,” she said.  “If we give you five percent, they’ll want five percent, and so will they, and so will they.  All of a sudden we’re making twenty percent less.  We’ll give you guys five percent of our revenue, but you split it between you.”

Damsel made eye contact with Rotten Apple.  Rotten Apple shook her head.

She was being cut out.  Treated like she wasn’t there.

To lose it all like this?  Not a grandiose loss, no challenge, but to be reduced to nothing with no ceremony or tact?  She had arrived at this fire tonight with every intention of taking and holding her place.

She shivered, and it wasn’t because it was cold.  Over the two, three seconds of her mind racing, recalibrating, trying to see the way forward, her thoughts were noise.

“Be aware, I will not be giving up Deathchester so easily,” Damsel announced.

“Are you legitimately insane?” Blasto asked.

“She’s referring to Dorchester,” Accord said.

“We know the slang names,” Morning Glory’s leader said.

“I prefer to use proper names wherever possible,” Accord said.  “Slang is crass.”

“We’re well aware of how peculiar you are, little man,” the tattooed man from Morning Glory said.

“Damsel,” Rotten Apple said.  “I don’t like you, but I don’t want to see you do this.  Your buddies behind you look like they just shit buckets.”

“I claimed Deathchester.  I drove out the groups there.  We’ve been doing business there uncontested for a week, even with the city being a contested location.  I have forty-seven employees under me, and I have connections to other groups.”

“You have forty-one employees,” Accord said.  “You exist because of luck, and because you are so insignificant that nobody will be bothered to chase you down.”

“Rationalize your fear however you like,” Damsel said.

“You have no power,” Accord said.  “No political connections, no meaningful income, no headquarters, and no information to broker.  You’ve not only evidenced no education, little girl, but you’ve made several irritating word substitutions in the past week that lead me to believe that you haven’t attended high school or even read a book in recent memory.”

“I have power,” she said.  Her chin raised.  She moved her hand and her power crackled.  The words sounded hollow, when her chest felt like claws had dug into her heart and her lungs and clawed them down and out of her chest.  “If you disregard something like this or someone like me, then you don’t deserve to call yourself a mastermind.”

“No,” Accord said.  “No.  You are trivial.  The only impact you have made is that you’ve wasted far more time than you’re worth, tonight.”

“You’re making dangerous enemies, Accord,” she said.

“I move to remove her from the meeting.”

“Yes,” Detente said.  “I would have been kinder about this, but- yes.”

No.  She tried to think of something that would wound him.  “You’ve lied to others, setting up deals you betrayed, and now you’re trying to set these people up too.  You’ve been dealing with the local PRT, handing them others on a silver platter.”

“Jesus,” Rotten Apple said.  “Stop.”

The light of the fire danced around everyone present, making shadows shift and masked faces become even more macabre than they were.

“You’re pathetic, Clockwork Dogs!  You cling to order and being proper because you’re scared, deep down inside.  Like a furtive little pair of rodents, you make deals and you betray and you narc to the heroes, and all you do is spin in place.”

He wasn’t even looking at her.

He was checking with the other groups.  A nod here, a nod there.

Her voice rose, and she made it imperious, proud, convicted.  It was the voice of a queen, and in a world that was right and just, it would slap them in the faces and they would kneel.

A hand touched her shoulder.

“Don’t touch me!” she slapped.  Her power flared out.

It crackled, and it roared into the air- but that air was cool, and it was empty.  No heat from the fire, no smoke, no light.  A wave crashed against her legs and soaked the bottom portion of her dress.

She was standing in the water, so far down the beach that she could raise one hand and block out her view of the fire and the figures that surrounded it.

“Three or four times, she asked for permission.  She was mindful, she was careful, she was smart.  I gave you all the written testimony of the Patrol leader in charge and of the witnesses, and I’m pretty sure they agree with me on this.  If every parahuman acted the way she did then, then we would not have a tenth the problems we do now.”

Victoria spoke with passion, with no paper to read from.  She knew how to speak and how to hold herself.

Her mother was a lawyer.  Ashley had heard that from Amy.

She could see it.

“With all due respect, Ms. Dallon,” the proctor that looked like a mortician said, “If all parahumans acted the way she did when she killed another parahuman, we would have half the number of parahumans.  Some people out there might say that would be a good thing, I don’t know, but in my eyes and the eyes of my colleagues?”

“If this were a proper court and if the framework of these proceedings let us draw a thread through things, then any decent lawyer would be able to illustrate a long list of extenuating factors.  Beast of Burden led a group of people that maim and kill as a matter of routine.  We were in a situation with fire, more hostile powers than I could list, and bullets flying.  This man, who has an established history of violence well past Gold Morning, threatened her, ground her into the dirt, and then struck her using enhanced strength.  Anyone would be rattled.”

“Rattled would not be the word I would use for what written testimony spelled out here.  A calm response, a pause that indicated consideration, and then the lethal blow.”

“To be a cape is theater,” Victoria said.  “In that situation, she was threatened not just by Beast of Burden, but by the proximity of several violent capes.  If she were surrounded by wolves, with one intending to tear her throat out, killing that one would not be enough.  She would need to scare off or intimidate the others.  To preserve her own well being on multiple fronts, she needed the theater.  She needed to maintain her undercover role.”

“Wasn’t it a mistake to put her in that dangerous a position?” the woman with chin-hairs asked.

“Look at the field reports from the incidents.  Mr. Troth can probably give you some comments on the matter, sharing what he knows about the Wardens’ response, but I can tell you that everyone thought that the situation would be smaller scale and easier to steer.”

“It was a clusterfuck,” the man in the Wardens uniform said.

“Yes, thank you,” Victoria said.  She was so into the argument.  “Top heroes, top law enforcement, lesser heroes, sole individuals, and the villains from Cedar Point that attacked the compound and set off the whole scenario.  We didn’t think it would be that bad.  Is some of that on my shoulders?  Yes.  Yes, and I would take a share of her punishment for my role in things.”

“I would too,” Tristan said.  “I’m the de-facto leader of the team.”

“Co-leader,” Ashley whispered.

“That’s not how we operate,” the woman with the chin-hairs said.

“It bears repeating that this is not a proper court, Ms. Dallon.  Capricorn.  Our job is to handle her case and decide if it warrants the court’s attention.  You paint a compelling argument, but the courts are the ones who should hear it and make the appropriate judgment.”

“They are, absolutely,” Victoria said, the words punctuated like she was using the span of the word ‘absolutely’ to give herself the time to construct a complete argument.  She wasn’t letting up.  It made Ashley almost want to laugh, to see it.  “But you do have the responsibility of deciding the terms of her confinement while she awaits her turn at the court.  She has cooperated at every turn, mitigating factors abound, and she is dependent on a tinker for the use of her hands.  I would plead with you-”

Victoria paused, clasping her hands in front of her.  She looked so serious.

“-Assign her house arrest.  The same means and mechanisms that would keep her in an ordinary jail cell can be applied to a stay in her apartment in Stratford.  She has a number of friends who would be more than happy to bring her groceries and see to it that she was comfortable.  It would be a lower burden on the system with resources being as constrained as they are, and-”

Ashley looked down at her hands, clenching them together as much as their limited functionality allowed.

Victoria was such a simpleton.  An imbecile.  Such a feeble minded girl.

Ashley had given her that apartment.  Now Victoria was trying to give it back.

“-and frankly, the options you’re considering would only increase the chance of conflict.  I know her therapist would argue the same, if she were with us.  It just makes sense.”

“Thank you, Ms. Dallon.  To hear your impassioned arguments, I’d imagine you were Ms. Stillons’ counsel.”

Ashley glanced at her counsel.  If only he’d been quite so impassioned.  He’d been one to file the paperwork and smooth things along, dotting the ‘i’s and slashing the ‘Q’s

“I’ll take that as a compliment.  Thank you, sir.”

“However, there are other people to hear.  Mr… Chief Armstrong?”

Ashley saw Mr. Armstrong stand from the bench.  He was a funny man, his head too wide at the top, his chin narrow.  The beard he’d grown out helped.

Victoria, meanwhile, retreated to her seat behind Ashley, flashing an easy and almost convincing reassuring smile.

She got it, Ashley knew.  Victoria understood it all, just as well as Ashley did.  The there were monsters out there, and that the dark could get so dark that there was no hope of being able to see.

It was clear from the way Victoria held herself, how she made her arguments and picked her clothes: she understood the image and the theater, too.  She understood that without both of those things, they had nothing at all.

Forty-seven or forty-eight underlings.  Ages sixteen to twenty-five, for the most part, and a mix of cultural backgrounds.  Many of them were streetwise, with knowledge of the underworld or the things to watch for.  There were connections, and there was a buzz of gossip and slivers of rumor that could expand into something greater.

There were others with other skills.  Something as simple as the confidence to drive a large truck could open doors and create opportunities.  Even among young criminals, the ability to get in a fight in a hairy situation and not loose one’s cool was rare.  To be able to throw a punch?  It was essential.

The morning after the moot, eighteen remained, and four of those eighteen were mercenaries she was paying a premium for.  Bar was gone, again, the cowardly fuck was content to help when all was going well and he disappeared the moment it wasn’t.

Angel being one of the people who didn’t arrive this morning hurt more.

She was sitting on the steps that led from the side door of the hotel to the parking lot.  It wasn’t much of a distance, with only two stairs.

She didn’t like being out here like this, where people could see her be mundane and less than fully confident, but she liked the idea of being in the hotel room less.  She didn’t like what it represented, or that her people were inside, giving her wary looks.

J hung back, leaning against the wall by the door, his phone out.  O’Brien was also here, out by his car in the parking lot, his arm on the leg of a boy his age that was sitting on the hood of the car.

J being loyal made a degree of sense, but O’Brien staying was a surprise in much the same way that Angel’s departure was.

She would rise triumphant and she would claim Boston.  She would remove underlings from beneath the leaders of each group, set them against each other, and then she would go after each one in turn.  She would make them piss themselves and then sit in the piss.  She would have them lick the undersides of her boots after she had walked through gravel, and use their tongues to work the gravel free where it was wedged into the lines of the sole.

And, as part of that plan, she would reward the loyalty.  She would have to spend more time with O’Brien, to know the kinds of things he liked so she could bestow the right gift.  She knew the kinds of things J liked, but it would be tricky to get those things when J was the person she would usually send to make purchases.

“We could hire more mercenaries.  We pull a few jobs, it would draw people in,” J said.

She shook her head.

“Taking a few days off could be healthy,” he said.  “Rest, recoup, let people remember that they want to earn money, let them come crawling back.”

“Crawling back is a good turn of phrase, but no,” Ashley said.  She stood from the stair and brushed herself off.  O’Brien perked up, dropping his hand from the boy’s leg.  Ready to join her and take orders.

She raised her hand, motioning for-

Her power flickered.

-for him to stay.  He relaxed, leaning against the car and the boy that sat on the car.

“We could make an example of one of those cretins that left,” J said.

“No we couldn’t,” Ashley said.  “And you’re trying to cheer me up by talking like that.”

“Is it working?” he asked.

“No, but try again later.  Let me pretend I’m corrupting you.  I’m going to go for a short walk.  I have an idea of what I need to do.”

“Plans are good.”

“Look after things.  Tidy up.  If this goes well, I want to be ready to have people gather and give them a job.”

“On it,” J said.

“Give me your phone,” she said.

“You don’t use phones,” he said.

“Not often.  Your phone.”

He handed it over.  He used the keycard to let himself into the hotel, where he would do his tidying and get ready for a potential job.

Though she had no idea what that job would be.  There was a good chance that there wasn’t one.  She would have to improvise if there wasn’t.

She handled the phone with care.  It would be too easy for her power to destroy it.

The hotel wasn’t far from the water, and a band of trees and grass separated the hotel’s parking lot from the water below.  She made her way into the trees and toward the nearest spot she could find to sit down.

She kicked off one shoe, and she sat with her hands at her side, the phone on the slope of a rock with its long side against one of her feet.  Her other foot crossed over, second toe pulled under the big toe.

Speaker.

Zero.

“Operator speaking.  How many I help you?”

“Could you connect me to the Boston PRT?”

There was a pause.

“Front desk at the first Boston PRT Department building.  How may I help you?”

“I would like to speak to Director Armstrong.  It’s- Ashley.  He’s expecting my call.”

“One moment, please.”

Ashley stared up at the branches of the trees.

“Would this be Ms. Stillons?”

“Don’t get your hopes up or anything.  I’m calling because of business.”

“I heard what happened at the moot.  There are dangerous individuals edging into your territory.”

“I’m more dangerous than they are, Armstrong.  Don’t try to scare me or manipulate me.”

“There are a lot of things I would like to talk to you about, Ashley, now that I have you on the phone.  Licit raised some of them, but-”

“Licit can eat fecal matter for all I care,” Ashley said.  “And Edict can lick the plate.  Or the other way around, for all I care.  They’re oversized maggots and you’re the bloated fly that put them in front of me.”

“Evocative.  I won’t bring them up, then.  How about that?”

“Licit said you had information about the Clockwork Dogs.  It’s clear that they’re taking a lot of power and pulling strings.”

“Yes,” Armstrong said.  There was a noticeable change in tone.  He was guarded.  Was he going to change his mind now?  “Yes.  They’re one of three major players who are pulling the strings.”

“We have a mutual interest in removing them from the picture.”

“I wouldn’t phrase it quite that way.”

“They’re dangerous and they’re deranged.  If you wimp out on me now I will find you and I will find heretofore undiscovered ways to end your existence.”

“If only I could recruit you, what a shame,” he said.  Then his tone changed, more serious.  “I could tell you things, but they’re not the sort of thing that would help you against them.”

“Then why do you exist?  You’re useless.”

“Listen,” he said.  He was serious.  “Damsel of Distress.  Accord has and is leveraging some very, very powerful help.”

“What help?”

“How do I put this?  Some of this is classified, and there’s information I can’t give you.  Accord’s power made him very valuable to people who are playing on a level on par with the PRT, understand?  I can’t tell you who they are, but Detente is one of them.  He’s a powerful individual from halfway across the planet, and as far as we can tell, someone sent this guy to Accord to help establish him in Boston.  Detente is liable to disappear or fake his own death.  He’s been going back and forth between his roles.”

Ashley shifted position.  She sat on the soil, sand, and the scattered leaves and leaned back against the rock.  The phone sat on the rock, near her ear.

“You cannot touch that man.  You will end up face to face with those people who were this eager to establish a working relationship with him and powerful enough”

“I’m not scared,” she said.

“You have other reasons to be concerned.  There’s more to it- I would want to talk to you face to face to explain it.”

“Ah, there’s the trap.  You craven, sad man.  So predictable.”

“Damsel,” he said.  “Damn it.  Do you want revenge?”

“Yes.  You are on that list, Director Armstrong, just so you know.”

“Do you want revenge against Accord?”

She stared up at the branches.  Her hand reached, positioned as if it could grab a branch two dozen feet away, and closed around air.  Her power crackled, and the phone crackled in response.

“Are you there?”

“I want revenge against Accord.”

“Join my Wards program.  You would have powered allies, some really genuinely great people.  You’d be in Boston, where you could work against Accord, and as part of the PRT, you would have some insulation against Accord’s backers.”

She brought her knees up, and she pressed her forehead against them.

“We could send him to prison.  Maybe even the Birdcage.  He would be so miserable there.  That would be the ultimate revenge, I think.”

“You have very little imagination, then.  No dismemberment?  No glass or fun uses of household chemicals?”

“You’re in danger, Damsel,” Armstrong said, his voice very serious as it came through the speaker.

“Tell me something I don’t know.  I’m always in danger, because danger breeds more danger and I’m dangerous.  That’s being a cape.”

“Are you alone?  I hear water and rustling leaves.”

“I’m alone,” she said.  She didn’t hear water and rustling leaves.

Maybe he was tracking the phone’s location.  Such a worm of a man.

“Accord is tracking you with powers.  Maybe you could take it as a compliment, that he is and was concerned about you, but you’re unpredictable and he hates the unpredictable.”

“Let him come.  I’ll destroy him or whoever he sends.”

“My concern, Damsel, is that he knows you could be dangerous if you’re given a chance and he won’t give you that chance.  It will be a bullet from a rooftop you can’t see.  He’s a problem solver and he can coordinate attacks with great precision.”

“Thank you for the warning,” she said.  “I’ll keep an eye out for trouble.”

“Dam-”

She mashed her fingers on the phone’s keypad to hit the ‘disconnect’ button.  It was fifty-fifty odds as to whether her touch would destroy the phone.

Did she believe him?

Yeah.  If she read between the lines, it made a great deal of sense.  He lied and he twisted the truth, and he probably convinced himself it was for her own good.

But she wasn’t stupid.

She picked up the phone with care, and she made her way up the slope to the parking lot.  O’Brien wasn’t by the car, but his friend was.

Do your best, Accord, she thought.  I’m not that easy to deal with.

She had to walk around to the front of the hotel.  She wondered if they were paid by Accord.  It was hardly discreet, and she was easy to recognize.

She wanted to go cold, to crush her feelings and press them deep down inside.  What she’d feared had come to pass.

The door was unlocked and left ajar.  She pushed it open with her toe.

J was at his computer, looking at websites.  As he changed windows, a map of Boston with the territories appeared on it.  Useful stuff.

“Welcome back,” he said.  “Mission success?”

“Kind of.  I know how to get him.”

“You do?  Just like that?” J asked.

“Yeah,” she said.  She walked around the bed, and she gave J his phone.

She watched as his expression changed.  To an extent, he knew her as much as anyone could know someone after nearly three weeks together.  But he didn’t live with having the hands she did.  For him, the consideration of where her hands went and why wasn’t something he had to work out every moment.

When she pressed the phone into his hand, her hand lingered, a dangerously close distance to his.

He pulled away, and she caught his hand, holding it and the phone both.  Her power flickered along her knuckles, but it didn’t touch him.  He froze, seeing it.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Accord is using powers to watch me?  He could kill me at any time, I’m told.  But if I’m a problem and Accord is capable, why hasn’t he done it already?”

J stared at her, a hint of fear in his eyes.

“Because he thinks he can manipulate me,” she spoke in a low whisper.  “He can make the unpredictable predictable, this way.”

He tried to pull away, and she held on.  She whispered, “Don’t.  I might involuntarily use my power.  We’ve been so careful, it would be a shame if something happened to you now.”

He spoke, “They’re manipulating you.  They know how you work and think and they’re using it to fuck with you.”

She reached out and she touched his face.  He flinched, and the fear in his eyes was real.

It was her first time touching him with her hands, instead of being touched.

“What’s the power?” she asked.  “Figuring me out?  Something else?”

J shook his head.

“What’s your real name?  How long have you been doing this?”

“It’s J.  I’m on your side, Ashley,” J said.

“What do they call you?  Do you have a cape name?”

He pulled his hand and phone away from her hand.  Her power arced out, a band only a foot long, stretching and wiggling through the air.

“Hnnnnng!”  He grabbed the ruined stump of an arm.

“I did warn you not to pull.  What was your goal!?  What were you going to manipulate me to do!?”

“I’m not- I wasn’t-”

“Stop lying!” she shouted.

O’Brien appeared in the doorway.

“Help,” J said, but it sounded more like ‘hep’, with his voice being strained as it was.  He tried to stand, and she pushed him down, and her power took the top corner off of his shoulder, where it was attached to his still-intact arm.

She grabbed his arm and she used her power, clinging to the cold and the agitation that had snuck up on her amid the rush of adrenaline and the crush of emotions she wasn’t ready to feel or embrace.

“Just run, O’Brien,” she said.  “Go.  Be happy and treat your boyfriend right, and don’t mention this to anyone.”

She looked, and he was gone.  She wasn’t sure he’d heard.

She hoped he would be okay.  She hoped he would keep his mouth shut, for his sake.

“Talk to me, J,” she said.  Her eyes widened, a smile touching her face.  Agitation thrummed through her and made her feel just a little bit drunk.  “That’s an order, and I’m supposed to be the boss.”

J shook his head.  He was sweating so much that it looked like there was more sweat than blood.  Except there really wasn’t.  The shadows of the desk and the bed hid some of the growing puddle.

“Armstrong didn’t want to tell me because he was worried this would happen,” Ashley whispered.   “Eliminating you will upset Accord.  That’s as good as I’m going to get for now.  I can’t go after him.”

J opened his mouth, but no sound came out except a squeal.

“Yeah,” she said.  “I don’t have the fight in me.  I’m a warlord at heart, but things never go according to plan.”

“You will never,” J said.  His expression twisted with pain, and he bent forward.

She heard the tone of his voice.  The words.  She told herself that the J she’d known was too kind and too cool to say that, even with grievous wounds.

One point for me, she thought.

No, she deserved to be greedy.  Ten points.

“Never… Another…  Me.  Never.  This.”

“You’re not making sense anymore, J,” she said, even though she fully understood his meaning.

It was all she could do not to wipe him from existence.  She had to hold back, because- because it would be too easy to destroy him.

She took his legs with a sweep of twisted darkness.

Then she watched, and she waited.

Not fast, like her dad had been.  Her mother.

Fast was too kind, if he deserved it.  If that five percent of her that doubted this was right, then he deserved the chance to say something that would hurt her and stay with her.

He was silent, but for pained breaths and grunts.

When she was sure it was done, she used her power on the hotel room.  She was aggressive, and she was thorough, and coldness became something desperate and mad as she eliminated every trace of evidence, turning blood pools into splinters.  She picked her way through it, blasting anything that was recognizable.

In the midst of it, she found one oblong bit of condensed matter.  Dense, twisted in space and time until only a kernel remained, while the kernel in her breast had unfolded into something that scared her and fluttered in her chest.

And then, because she was sure police or heroes would be on the way, she ran.  No things but what she wore.  No bag, no books.

Her thoughts were a blur and her feelings were worse, too smeared and stained to be make sense of.

She was ready to leave Boston.

She was ready to go until she saw the giant wading through the water, as it had done the day prior.

Ashley changed direction.

Judgment was hard and judging time was harder.  The giant was like a building in the distance that she kept closing the distance to, where she could have told herself she would be there in five minutes.  Five minutes later, she would be saying much the same thing.

Forty-seven or forty-eight employees had worked under her.  Then there had been eighteen.  Fourteen if she didn’t count the mercenaries.

Then thirteen, because O’Brien had run.

Then twelve.  Of those twelve, some had likely arrived, heard the news, and they wouldn’t have turned up tomorrow.

O’Brien would communicate to the ones who remained.  They wouldn’t show up to look for her.  As the decisions were made, the imaginary ticker of people in her employ would dwindle to nothing.  It might have been inevitable.

Eight, and then seven.

Six, and then five, four employees.  They left.  Had they been hers or had it been convenience?

She got close enough to the giant to see its scale.

She scaled the side of it like she’d scaled the building face, on the evening the giant had first appeared.  With reckless, haphazard blasts, feet scrambling for footing and legs working to keep her more or less upright.

The tentacles unfolded.  They didn’t move fast, but as they slapped against the upper body of the giant, they shook the mossy skin and a shower of dust and debris rained down on her.  It stuck to the spatters and gobbets of blood that her power hadn’t erased from her hands and arms.

Her emotions were twisted, now.  As she climbed, working her way to a height well above the building face she had scaled, a false, excited joy swelled in her breast, at odds with where her heart was.

Three, then two.  Who would be among the last to truly abandon her and lose faith?  Had there been any faces in that crowd who had liked everything about her, who would hold out a hope that she would turn up and that things could resume?  One person that she hadn’t talked to enough?

This was as close as she’d ever gotten and J might well have been right in suggesting she would never get there again.

She wanted to feel something and she felt no connection to the feelings in her chest.  They didn’t count at all.

She reached the neck and the head, and she blasted.  The blast sent her skidding along the stone-like, mossy hide of the giant.  The blast tore, ripped, cracked, and annihilated, but of all the things she had blasted, it was the most durable.  Remnants remained, condensed and twisted.  More than she had ever seen.  She found a ridge and stuck her foot out, stopping herself.

Tentacles reached up and the sky seemed to darken as they loomed above her.

They came down atop the beast, as if it had no regard for its own well being.  The thing’s hide was tough enough that the wood-like tentacles didn’t hurt anything, but where she had cracked and destroyed, the impacts broke things further.

It struck again, tentacles scraping, and she vaulted herself into the air with another shot.  The thing lurched- no longer under her, and she used another shot to reorient.  She crashed in the ragged, ruined section of neck.

Here, she had footing.  Here, she could blast without worrying about sliding off.

She blasted.  Again and again, condensing, destroying, thinning out.  She tore apart a mountain one shot at a time.  Tentacles reached overhead, and swept over the exterior, but only one reached into the crevice.  She blasted at it until it was no longer there.

The material around her creaked, wood that was so stone-like it might have been petrified, and she saw the cracks widen as the thing’s own weight worked against it.

Tentacles stopped reaching for her.  She heard water splash.

Slowly but steadily, the damage she’d done began to fill in.  The thing was healing moment by moment.

She could have escaped, gone up, gotten out and then down.

She threw herself further down with a furious, intense despair, suffocated with emotion that didn’t feel like it was hers.

The way out closed up above her.

She carved her way deeper into the monster, giving chase to a heart that wasn’t there.  There was only structure.

One.  One remained, she told herself.

At her peak she had forty-seven or forty-eight.  Now… one.

Again, material creaked and cracked.  The structural damage spread to the area around her, to the front and back chest walls of the giant, and then, with a deafening sound, it soared skyward, up to the giant’s shoulder, where she had made her entrance.  What had healed wasn’t as strong as the rest, and a certain amount of strength was needed to hold it all together.

There was something deeply wrong with her.  She knew that.

But she couldn’t go to the heroes.  Not now, even if she’d allowed herself to consider it for a moment.

The giant split, stumbling, and the crack in the wall became a gap.

She hurled herself out in the opposite way the giant was falling.  It crashed into buildings by the water and into the water itself, the water it had been drinking to reinforce its own body.  She-

She soared through the air.  She fell, bloodied arms out to either side, her hair flew around her, her dress was partially in tatters because the use of her powers had caught the bottom edge a few too many times.

One.  One last person in her group.

Herself.

She’d needed to reaffirm that faith.  To leave some impact.

A use of her power interrupted and slowed her downward velocity, but saw her spin through the air, blasting once, then twice, in an attempt to correct her angle and cancel out her velocity.

She landed, and she landed hard, tumbling.  Something popped in her hand with a jolt that she felt in her belly, and pain followed.

In the background, the giant was stumbling, the structural damage cascading.  Much of it dropped into the water.

The pain in her hand expanded with every heartbeat.

“Ow,” she mewled the word, and she hated the sound.  A sixteen year old shouldn’t sound that young and small, she knew.  Moisture welled in her eyes, and she tried to blink it away.  She hadn’t cried three years ago.  She wasn’t supposed to start now.

One hand gently holding the injured one, she limped away from the scene.

There was, at least, a grim satisfaction to it.

She’d told Blasto to keep it out of Deathchester, and it was her territory until she left it.

This would have to do, for the leaving end of things.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Eclipse – x.6

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Damsel’s power broke through the silence, the scream and the crackle of it so abrupt in how it came on and dissipated that she could imagine it was a continuous sound that was only audible when her power opened the door.

In the break between the use of her blasts, her toes scrabbled for footing on the brick.

Another blast, driving her up and at an angle.  The darkness rippled behind and below her like her dress flapped and whipped around in the disturbed air.  She had to work against the push, so she wouldn’t simply be pressed against the wall.  Instead, her leg extended out, some isolated muscles she wasn’t used to exercising straining, her foot dragged down, and she made her way up.

She was three stories above the ground, only a drop with nothing to grab below her.

The blasts alternated, to provide that recoil push that could drive her skyward, while her feet worked to give her traction and keep her positioned.

This blast sputtered after she tried to extinguish it; a movement of her hand she hadn’t intended, or just the power being its moody self, it continued to output power, pushing her off course.  She was flung sideways, toward the corner of the building, and beyond that- only the fifty foot drop to pavement and sidewalk.

She compensated, a use of her power to send her in the opposite direction.  So wild and reflexive a move saved her from the immediate threat, bought her a second, and threatened another crisis, her entire body out of position, her frame of reference spinning around her.

She could see the fat, rust-stained concrete lip at the bottom of a window, and she stomped on it more than step on it, in her rush to find footing.

It was another half second of time, and it gave her the ability to establish her frame of reference, reminding herself what was up, what was down, and where she wanted to be.

Up.  She blasted, both hands, and her knee almost struck her chest as she rushed to get her footing in advance of her body getting that high.

Up, another burst, another noise, another shudder through her arms and shoulders to her chest, the feeling around her heart and chest reminding her that she hadn’t breathed in twenty or thirty seconds.

Then- no footing.  She was moving upward, her shoulders tense, her chest locked with no breath passing through her throat or mouth, dress and hair moving with the air, and her arms out and behind her.  The building was below her.

A short blast moved her horizontally.  She landed on a broad tarred shingle that wasn’t fully attached to the roof.  The shingle moved under her as she came to a stop.

She stepped up to and then stood on the corner of the rooftop.  Her group was in the lot below her, with twenty-five of her people rushing to fill up the trucks they’d haphazardly parked around the building.  People were shouting orders, trying to harangue a disorganized mob of teenagers and twenty-somethings into order.

The building below her was a warehouse.  Televisions, computers, laptops and printers.  She had been informed that most were the kind that flooded stores before all the students arrived for university, cheaper, with brand names nobody had heard of.

The teenagers were nervous, and a heavy rumble had almost made them shit themselves.  It had been followed by another, and then another.  She had had J call the mercenaries she had stationed at either end of the warehouse lot to see if they’d seen the cause.  They hadn’t.

Now she had her vantage point, and her eyes scanned the area.

A helicopter made its way through the night sky above them.  She could see her people stop in their tracks at the noise, heads turning to see the helicopter-mounted spotlight roving over buildings a block away.

Not for them.

The spotlight of the helicopter illuminated the source of the rumbling, a ways off to the north, past the water.

It was taller than some four-story buildings, hunchbacked, without much of a head.  It walked on two legs, using one of its arms when its balance failed it and it tipped too far forward.  Its other arm wasn’t the kind that supported weight, consisting of a morass of tentacles.

As the helicopter drew nearer, the tentacles began to unfurl, expanding out to fill the area around the giant.  It turned, standing straighter, clearly hostile.

The helicopter pulled back, the spotlight covering more of the giant with a lower intensity.

It made its way out into the water, and the tentacles from its arm spread out, plunging into the water around it.  It stood with its back to the area.

Damsel crossed the roof, found the ladder for the fire escape, and slid down, one hand on the side, another ready to grab the rungs if something went wrong, her feet stopping her periodically.

She hopped down the last five feet, and dusted off her hands.  Grime, paint chips and rust, with some abrasions.  A use of her power cleared away the rust.

“Did you see what it was?” J asked her.

“Giant monster,” she said.  “How are we doing?”

“Giant monster?” J asked.  People nearby looked curious too.

“I asked you a question,” she said, her voice sharp.

“Uh, we’re fine.  We should plan more before we do this again, teach our people to load things efficiently.  Giant monster?  How giant?”

“Seventy-five feet?  I don’t know.  Big doesn’t matter.”

“We’re not concerned?”

“I am concerned that we have a convenient distraction and we might waste it.  Will we be done in five minutes?”

“Last load, people!” J shouted.  “We’re out in four!”

“Alright,” Damsel said.

People who’d been inside made their way out, carrying large boxes.  A few had flat boxes stacked three or four high, each stack carried by two people.

“Careful about tipping them over!” a man called out.  It was Marrow, at one of the trucks.  “You can mess with the internal hardware or some shit like that.”

Damsel walked over to him.  “Any complaints?”

“Nah, this is good,” Marrow said.  “What was the rumble?”

“Giant monster.  But it’s not here and it’s not threatening the city.  We can ignore it.”

“You’re sure?”  he asked.  At her nod, he asked, “We part ways after this, then?  Your convoy goes one way, me and my brothers go another?”

“We’ll touch base soon.  If you can’t offload your take, we might have an offer,” Damsel said.

“You’re pretty confident you’ll be able to sell all this,” he observed.

It was four trucks that were partially filled- three smaller moving vans and one eighteen wheeler.  Marrow’s ex-cons had one large moving van.

“We’ll see,” she said.

“Get in and buckle up!” Bar called out.  “Don’t let any of those boxes fall on you!”

People filed into the eighteen wheeler.  The shutter at the back was closed.

The other trucks were loaded up, her people inside, and the doors shut.

“Bring my trucks back whenever,” Marrow said.

“Yeah,” she said.  She walked away.

It was one of her underling’s cousin’s tips that had given them the location of the stocked warehouse.  That cousin was in their security uniform, at the far end of the lot with a broken leg, a shiner, and two of the four mercenaries she’d hired standing guard over them.

By choice, as strange as it seemed.  Cape insurance was paying out the nose while Boston was being turned upside-down, and they weren’t vetting a lot of the reports, or so this cousin thought.  For enduring a broken leg and a bruise, they had a disability payout, an excuse to claim mental distress, and the ability to coast for six months to a year before they had to go back to work.  That was their estimation, reportedly.  She didn’t really care if it worked out or not.

She got what she’d wanted.  Trucks loaded with stolen goods.  J’s suggestion had been to basically sell some of the computers and TVs to her people for ten percent of their label prices.  From the buzz she’d heard, some seemed excited about the idea.  Less profit, but it made for happier underlings and less stock to offload.

Some of her people were prepared to drive to major cities and towns nearby to offload to groups and connections there.  Bar had family who wanted to buy some of the stock to sell on the down-low.

J and Bar seemed pretty confident that they’d already made arrangements to get rid of two truckloads.  Part of one truck would go to her people -that was fine- and the rest?  It couldn’t be too difficult.  The trick was that her people would be selling it themselves, rather than distributing to people who would sell it.  That involved risks.

“Ready to go?” J asked.

She nodded.

J signaled with a wave of his hand.

His car was parked between two buildings.  Damsel took the passenger seat, and J shut the door for her.

“Want me to drive ahead or behind?” J asked.

“Behind.”

J leaned out of the window and waved his arm in a forward motion.

The trucks rolled out.

They pulled out of the broad concrete lot that bounded the warehouse and other buildings in the same broader complex, and Damsel raised a hand to signal the mercenaries.

“Is Marrow happy?” J asked.

“Happy enough,” she responded.  They’d allowed Marrow to bring a single truck in exchange for loaning them the vehicles to move the stock.  It built relations, which was handy.  Marrow had ignored her or claimed to be unavailable the last four times she had reached out.  She’d stung his pride.

Forming working relationships would be good.

“My heart is pounding like crazy,” J said.  “It has been since we first got into the trucks to drive here.”

“Wuss,” she said.

“Isn’t yours?” he asked.  “How are you calm at a time like this?”

“I’m not, I suppose,” she said.  She wasn’t calm, but it made her uncomfortable to try to explore that simple question of how she felt or where her ‘normal’ was.  There were times her heart raced, and her heart was racing now, but that wasn’t unusual.  It was almost normal.  Whenever it wasn’t like this… she couldn’t say she was calm.  If she wasn’t actively doing something then she generally had other concerns.

It was a rare, rare time that she was still, things were mundane, and she found a moment to consider to how she felt or how her body was doing.

She moved her hand with care, because an incautious movement could destroy the car door, wheel, or engine.  She didn’t recognize her own hand.

For the last little while, she had been eating more.  Thanks to J.  Her fingers were still thin, but the bones and the tendons at the back weren’t quite as defined as they had been.

The window was open, and she put her hand outside.  Dangerous, to let the wind push and pull at her hand, but she was careful to keep it rigid.

She felt good and she didn’t trust the feeling.  She’d felt good when she’d robbed the bank with Kidney Stan’s group.  She’d felt good when she’d looted the clothing store in Stafford at four in the morning and made off with bags of clothes.  The bank robbery had gone wrong and the ‘good’ had become something else, and the good feeling from the looting of the clothing store had soured with a quickness that suggested the feeling hadn’t been real.

No good days.  There were the bad days and there were the days she dreaded the bad days.  Right now, she was caught between a low-key excitement that wouldn’t quit and the dread.

Almost, almost, she was tempted to do something stupid just to get it out of the way and alleviate that dread.

Hm.  Maybe not so almost.  She couldn’t quite recall the train of thought that had led to her scaling the side of the building with her power.  There hadn’t even been thought, when she tried to remember the sequence of events.  The noise had demanded her attention, and somewhere between the point where she had rationalized that she needed to get up higher to see what was going on, needed to do it fast, and couldn’t climb up the ladder without her power getting in the way… had she felt a kernel of that desire to alleviate the dread?  Had she pushed it out of mind and acted on it, in her hurry?

That spooked her more than the electronics robbery or the rumble had.

“Holy shit, there it is,” J said.

Damsel tilted her head to see through the side window, and she saw the giant.  It hadn’t moved.  More helicopters with lights were circling it.  Nobody was fighting the thing, and the thing wasn’t fighting anyone.

“Blasto’s, probably,” she said.  “He was making something big.”

“You’re not bothered?”

“Not as long as he keeps it out of Deathchester.”

“Half the city must be shitting itself right now,” J said.

“Because they’re weak,” she said.

She’d wanted to say something clever, to elaborate on the thought, but she heard the way she said ‘weak’, the harshness of it, and it surprised her enough that the rest of the statement caught her off guard.

I would fight past ten of Soldat’s soldiers, a hundred of Blasto’s plant heroes, or disobey a thousand of Edict’s orders, if it meant not feeling like this.

A collision ahead of them snapped her to reality.  Tires squealed as J hit the brakes, then steered to avoid the trucks that were simultaneously braking and swerving to avoid what was ahead of them.

Her power destroyed the door handle as she opened the car door.  The eighteen-wheeler’s long body provided some cover as she jogged ahead, trying to get to a point where she could see what was going on.

Latent emotion boiled up.  The dread became something manifest and tangible that ran in her veins.  There was a desperate edge to her feelings

She saw a ghostly prism floating in the air, rotating slowly.

“Licit!” she screamed the word.

Her people were climbing out of the back of a truck.

“Boss,” one said.

“Licit!” she screamed, again.  Her power flared.

She saw the heroes further down the street.  Licit wasn’t alone.  He walked toward her, filling the air around him with more ghostly shapes, ranging from a few feet across to the size of a car.  Spheres, cubes, diamond prisms, cones.  His backup didn’t advance with him.

“What do we do?” someone asked.

She stared at Licit, breathing hard.

“We need two trucks, minimum,” she said.  She had to catch a breath to get the final two words out.  “Get out.”

“Bar!” the person shouted.  “We gotta leave with two trucks!”

Other names were called.  O’Neil- he’d been driving one truck.  She glanced back and saw him being extricated from the cab of a truck.  The airbag had trapped him and someone was now hacking at it with a knife to try to get the air out sooner.

Licit raised a hand, extending it their way.  She saw more shapes appear in the air.  Between her and Licit, behind her, and-

One truck reversed.  It ran into the sphere that had been created behind it.

She reversed direction, walking away from Licit.  A wall appeared in front of her- the face of a cube- she destroyed it with her power.

More.  One after another, obstacle, frustration, stalling.

She snarled.

He created them almost as fast as she destroyed them.  Her progress was measured in single paces.

She reached the back of the truck and destroyed the cube there.

“Back!” she called out, hopping up and grabbing a dent for a handhold.  Her power crackled, tearing a hole in sheet metal, and her fingers caught on the sheet metal, gripping the edge.

She expected the shape to appear, and she blasted it before it could have an effect.

The truck got turned around, and she hopped off as it sped off.

Another shape -a tall spike- appeared in the truck’s way.  The driver avoided it, but it hit the side view mirror and cracked the passenger side window.

The other truck hung back.  J was hanging onto the driver’s side door, watching things while communicating with the driver.  The people from the other truck were hurrying to get inside so they could get a ride away from the scene.

Rather than go to the truck, she went after Licit.  She knew how he operated.  He had a hard-on for her, like Edict did.  He’d been a big city cape once, and he’d transferred to her town because he got his jollies making her miserable.

He rode around with police and did talks at schools, according to the stoners she talked to.

Oh, and he got in her fucking way.

“Licit!” she screamed.

“I don’t want to fight, Ashley!”

“Have the decency to call me Damsel of Distress, you genital wart!”

“Damsel of Distress,” he said.  He was shaking his head.

A cone appeared at knee height, point touching the ground.  She almost walked into it, avoided it only because she’d had this encounter far too many times already.

“Digging your grave every time you try that, petty man,” she said.

“Why don’t you stop right where you are, and we talk.  I’m not looking to arrest you.”

He indicated the giant in the background, his head turning.

She used the opportunity to run toward him.

He created a barrier.  She blasted it, stumbling off to the left, then resumed running.  He created another barrier.

“Just stop, let’s chat.  We have bigger concerns tonight, believe it or not.”

“No you don’t,” she said, her eyes going wide.  “You got in my way, so you’d better believe I’m your biggest concern.”

“We’ll let you go with the trucks that can still move,” he said.  “If you’re willing to talk.”

“Do you like having legs, Licit?  I’ll let you keep them if you start begging for mercy now.”

“You’ve never hurt anyone that badly, Damsel.  You’re not about to start now.  Stop.”

More barriers.  She blasted through each, changed the direction she moved as she tried to guess where each would appear and evade pre-emptively, and she drew nearer to him.

He began walking backward, keeping the same general distance from her.

As her second truck pulled away, he raised an arm for his buddies.  Two took flight, flying toward the truck, leaving only two on the ground.

“Less witnesses?” she asked.  She shook her head.  “Your bosses are going-”

She blasted at another barrier.

“-To need at least three if they’re going to make sense of exactly what it is I did to you and your remains.”

“Did you or do you know about that giant?” he asked.

She blasted another cube to pieces, stalking toward him.  He was walking through his shapes while they were solid for her.  He was relying on the shapes he’d made in advance to help keep the distance.

“…Your robbery was suspiciously timed,” he said.

“I have some idea.  How about I whisper it in your ear?”

“We flew over, our thinker gave us the take on you being in the car, stolen goods being in the truck.  We- if you stop and talk to me, I’ll call back the Boston fliers that just left.  You can walk away.”

She glared, blasting again.  Then, to break up the rhythm, she shot with the hand that hung limp at her side, her arm going rigid to provide some strength for the blast.  She sent herself upward, over the field, and then blasted again to rocket toward him.

Shapes went up.  He leaped to one side and skidded on one hip and leg, moving along a smooth, shallow slope he’d made with his power.  She gave chase, rocketing toward him with her power, and more shapes went up between them.

This time- cones and diamond-shaped spires that might as well have been spears.  Points aimed her way.

She stopped.

She reached out, touching one of the points.  She smiled.  “Got scared?”

“Director of the Boston PRT wants to talk to you,” he said.

“Again.”

“We bring you in or have you make a phone call.  We’re supposed to take the stolen goods back, according to the police, but we’re getting conflicting orders, because we’re supposed to be ready in case that giant ends up being a threat.  Given our past relationship-”

Damsel snorted.  “You stalk me and get in my way.”

“-I’ll let the stolen goods slide.  We won’t arrest your guys.  If you talk.”

“Does describing your unfortunate and imminent demise count?  Fuck you, Licit.  You’ll promise that and betray me the moment you have what you want.”

“I’ve never once done anything like that.”

Everyone does things like that.  You’re not special.”

“I’ll tell you what,” he said.  “I’m going to reach slowly for my belt.  I’m going to pull my phone out, and I’m going to call my guys off.  Just… stay where you are.”

She stared at him.

His hand moved.  She watched as he reached down, drawing the phone out.  There was a pause as he typed, his eyes moving back and forth between the phone and her.

Furtive.  Cowardly.

“Dovetail, Aerobat.  Can you let the trucks go?”

There was a pause.

“Please,” he said.  Pause.  “Yeah.  Thanks.”

“You’re lying.  Secret code.  Cops and capes can lie, and I’m not going to be fooled.”

“Just… wait?” he asked.

“If you are lying, how about I put you down?  I might not have maimed anyone, you’re right about that, but I’ve killed people, you know.”

“I know, Ashley,” he said.  “I’m sorry that happened.”

Her expression twitched.  Irritation, anger.  Her voice was hard.  “What did I say about my name?”

“I wasn’t saying it to you,” he said it in a quiet voice.  “I was saying it to her.  Is that okay?”

“No,” she said.  “That’s the kind of thing that makes me throw myself past these spikes of yours and take your head from your shoulders.”

“Then I won’t do it again, Damsel of Distress,” he said.  “Sorry.”

A moment passed.  She wanted to pace, but she worried that would be the trap, a bit of forcefield created at a level to trip her up, create a weakness that he could use.

The idea nettled her.  She remained where she was, imagining what she might do if an opportunity came up.

“You’ve never beat me,” she said.  “You never found me.  And I’m your full-time job?”

“Well, I help the police and things.  Ah, there they are.  See?”

Dovetail and Aerobat.  The pair dropped down from the sky, rejoining the two in the background.  They were looking more at the giant in the water than at Damsel.

“They could have already caught my friends.  Doesn’t Dovetail make forcefields?  This is clearly a trap.  You wouldn’t call them back for nothing.”

“I called them back because I promised that I would if you stopped and talked.  Which you effectively did.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“How about this?  You can use my phone or you can take a burner phone.  Call your group, confirm they’re fine.  But also call Director Armstrong.  If you take the burner phone, you call him at your leisure,” he said, tapping his belt.  “I brought it for that express purpose.”

“With a tracer in it?  No.  Stop acting like I’m stupid, Licit.”

“We don’t think you’re stupid, Damsel of Distress.  We do worry about you.”

“As you should.  I’m dangerous.”

He sighed.

His phone illuminated, buzzing silently in his hand.

She stared him down.

“Can I answer, Damsel?  It’s… the team back there.”

She didn’t answer.  She would give her team a bit longer to get away, then she would act.  She would have to deal with two fliers.  That would be a pain.

There was a building nearby.  She could blast a hole in the wall and force them to maneuver in an area they couldn’t fly up.

If need be, she would bring parts of the building down behind her.

He pressed the button on his phone without raising it from where he held it to his side.  He glanced down and hit another button.

“Licit,” a female voice came over the phone’s speaker.

“Dovetail,” Licit said, looking at Damsel.  “That’s Dovetail.  What do you need?”

“Do you need us to stick around?  We’re wondering if we should go after the giant.  Just in case.”

“Go,” he said.  “I think I’m fine.  De-escalating might be good.”

In the background, the two fliers took off.  The other one ran toward the water, in the general direction of the giant.  It had to be a mile and a half away.

“No witnesses,” Damsel said.

Licit hung up the phone.

“Your raid happened when the giant appeared.  Did you know it would appear?”

She remained silent.

He looked over his shoulder at the giant, and then without looking back to her, he said, “Director Armstrong has information about the Clockwork Dogs.  It’s why he wanted to talk to you.  Give us any info you have, agree to play reasonably nice, and…”

He drew in a breath and sighed.

“…We’re not especially invested in stopping you.  This situation in Boston is going to wind down in the next month, we’re hoping, as the major players lock down their territories or get their business underway.  If you’re one of them, then it’s not our first choice for outcomes, but at least you seem reasonably healthy and you’re not as bad as some.”

“I’m pretty darn bad, Licit.  You got scared enough to put spikes in my way.”

She touched a spike.  It fizzled out of existence- because of him, not her.

“You’re not shipping in prisoners from overseas and turning them into half-cow people to sell to fans of some asinine children’s show.  You cause property damage and you legitimately scare me because I can’t ever know for sure how far you’re willing to go, but I’ve been keeping an eye on your activities in Stafford-”

“Stalking me.”

“Keeping an eye on you, Damsel of Distress,” he said.  “I’ve been doing it long enough to get some sense of who you could be.  I’d rather have you around than nine out of ten of these assholes.  Edict would too, for the record.  Given a chance she’d cook you a warm meal, probably.  At least once a week, every week for the two years we’ve been keeping an eye on you, she’s said she would drop a box of eclairs off on your doorstep if she- if she knew where you were.  Or things like that.”

Damsel didn’t respond.

“I’ve joked it’s a Stockholm syndrome thing,” he said.  “We’d take you in and have you be a hero.  We’d pay you well, give you clothes, see what we could do to get your power under control, give you foster guardians…”

“You’ve told me this before.  Deceptions.  You’ll get me into custody and then drag me off to jail.”

“I don’t think we could keep you in jail,” he said.  “We do this song and dance instead.  I’m glad I got to spell it all out like this, instead of frantically shouting bits and pieces of it while you’re up to something.  I’ll rest easier knowing I got to make the full pitch once.”

“This shark isn’t going to bite that baited hook,” she said.  “It’s still not ruling out taking your head off.”

“Yeah,” Licit said.  “You’re doing this instead.  I really hope it works out, weird as it sounds.”

“It’s going to work out,” she said.

“Okay,” he said.  “Okay.  If that’s the case, then we’re going to be around another month or so.  That’s when we’re expecting it to come to a close.  Obviously, if you’re robbing a bank and we’re patrolling, we’ll be on the scene, but that’s it, we won’t come after you in any dedicated way.  After that, we’ll be gone, assigned to another small town somewhere.  You’ll be rid of us.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“We’ll be gone sooner if you tell us anything you know about the giant.”

She considered.

“You could even tell me you don’t know anything.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s Blasto’s,” she said.  “He was brewing something big.  There was talk he had a big weapon, like the death ray building scale of thing.  This fits for time, it fits for what people were saying and thinking.”

“Good to know,” he said.

“His team of capes isn’t real.  They’re vat grown.”

“Are they?” he asked.

She almost elaborated.  She didn’t.  “You should have heroes that know this.  Like the one who knew our trucks had stolen goods in them.”

Licit nodded, but he didn’t reply.

“Don’t treat me like I’m stupid,” she said.  “I’m corroborating what you already knew.  Or you didn’t need corroboration, but me saying this lets you check off some box for some reason.”

“Something like that,” he said.  “Alright.  I’ve done my duty, I’m probably not going to get a wink of sleep tonight while we figure out what to do about the giant, so… I’ll leave you to it, like my name says.”

He smiled.

She stared him down, glaring.

“Call the Director.  If nothing else… you’ll have to negotiate with the good guys sometimes if you’re going to do business in Boston.  Open that line of communication.  You need to know what you’re up against.”

He reached into his belt, drew out the black flip-phone, and threw it her way.

She caught it.

After a moment’s consideration, she destroyed the phone with her power.

“Good luck, I guess,” he said.

“I had a question,” Ashley said.

“Sure,” Riley answered.  She held one of Ashley’s hands in her hands, and held it up, poking at the raw end to make the fingers move.  It was idle, and not for any particular purpose.

It annoyed Ashley enough that she almost lost her train of thought.

“Nail polish.  What would it take?”

“I’ve replaced your nails with different colored ones before,” Riley said.  “Well… ‘color’.”

“If I wanted to apply actual nail polish.”

“That wouldn’t be destroyed by your power?  That’s hard.  Is it important?”

“I was out, a few days ago.  New area.  There was a shop with a sign in the window.  Superhero styled nail polish.  A friend of mine thought she might be able to do it.”

“That’s neat,” Amy said.  She had one hand on one of Ashley’s other arms.  She looked back at Ashley.  “The idea of something fancy like that, and that you have a friend willing to do it.”

“I don’t know if she would be able to.  But… it might be nice to have that freedom.”

“Here,” Riley said, “Amy, give me the arm.  I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thank you,” Ashley said.

“Have tea and cake with me again or something, in exchange for me going to the trouble,” Riley said.  “Sometimes I think I’m going to lose my mind again, cooped up in here like this.”

“We can’t have that,” Ashley said.

“I’m going to my room.  I have nail polish there I can use for tests,” Riley said.

Then she was gone.

Amy leaned against the counter by the sink.  She pursed her lips, her eyebrows going up momentarily.  Nothing to say.

Ashley looked down at the stumps.  The hollow metal rods had been replaced by ones with blunt ends, rather than the sharp ones of a year ago.

“I heard, um, you talked to my sister at one point?” Amy asked.

Ashley looked up, staring.

“I don’t want to pry or anything, but I worry about her.  I-”

“Then don’t pry,” Ashley said, her voice cold.

There was a pause.

“Okay.”

Ashley exhaled slowly, her eyes closed.

When her eyes opened, her head was still tilted back, staring up at the ceiling.

She was tired.  She would have to sleep, and she was worried about where that would take her.  Her nerves were frayed.

There were things to do.  She would need to make sure she looked her part.  She’d had more successes than failures overall, though the loss of the trucks would be something she would have to bring up with Marrow.

She walked on her knees to get to the point where she could climb off the bed, then fixed her dress.  She smoothed it down, because it was better to do that now when there was time to replace it.  The wrinkles in the dress persisted.  She frowned.

That could be fixed.  She tended to her hair, which was less of a risk than the dress.  It had been styled, and she hadn’t had cause to use her power on it.

She would have to soon, though.  She could see the start of the faint blonde roots.

“Get ready,” she said.

J sat up, rubbing his jaw.  “Any plans?”

“You’re my assistant.  You should know full well what we’re doing tonight.”

“Tonight’s moot.  I meant the specifics.”

“Get ready.”

“Yes ma’am.”

He went into the bathroom.

She elected to change clothes herself, because his way of doing it would take too long.  Her second nicest dress hung in the closet, and she was careful as she put it on.  She left the zipper alone.

He emerged from the bathroom, face freshly washed, hair fixed, and did the zipper up for her.

“I’m going to get the paperwork in case we end up doing any business.”

“Good.”

She was ready before he was.  When she stepped into the hallway of the hotel, the others were there.  Angel leaned against the wall, smiling.

“Stop being so happy,” Ashley told her.  “There’s only so much to go around.”

“There’s more going around than there was a week ago,” Angel said.  Bar elbowed her.

“Yeah.  Maybe there is,” Ashley said.

The door of the hotel room was open, and she could see J at the other end, gathering papers and putting them into a messenger bag.  He approached.

“Sorry for the wait.”

“Then be faster next time,” Ashley said.

J smiled.

They walked as a group to the parking lot, and loaded up into cars.  There was bickering about who sat where, but she ignored it.

“We should take another car,” J said.

The handle on the passenger side door was broken.  She stared at it for a moment, then nodded.

The drive was quiet, but quiet was good.

The giant was still in the water.  Over the day since its arrival, the giant had moved some, letting people know it was still a potential threat, but it hadn’t attacked anyone or done anything, and nobody had picked a fight with it.  She imagined it would be a topic tonight.

Numbers had swelled and changed over the past several moots.  As they reached the crest of the hill that looked over the beach, there were multiple fires visible.  The bonfire remained as its own construction, bigger than any of the others.

They stopped on the road overlooking the beach, and then they began their walk.

Ashley had been content to stick to the shadows over the past several moots, but the shadows had shrunk over the past few visits, with the individual fires.

Her heart raced, and she felt the kernel of- of a tentative feeling that she pushed out of mind before it could trip her up.  Composure mattered.  Image was everything, as she had her people behind her and her enemies in front of her.

There was no room for error.

She approached, and she took her spot at the inner ring by the fire for the first time.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Eclipse – x.5

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Ashley and her group walked slowly through the house.  She had the lead, J right behind her with bags in each hand, and the others followed as a loose group.

It was already furnished.  Plush white carpets, black leather furniture, artwork already on the walls.  The placemats on the table had lace at the edges.  The corners of each room had a little statue, a piece of furniture, or a plant.  Lilies.

J put the bags on the bench in the hallway, while Ashley continued into the house.

“Will it serve?” J asked.

Would it serve?  It was nicer than the hotel, and she had honestly thought the hotel was as nice as things got.  Mansions on TV were like the hotel rooms, just writ large, but this… she could do without the paintings, they were too bright and colorful, she would want to change things around, but…

“Yes.”

Angel whistled.  She’d smeared eyeshadow around her eyes and tied her hair back.  The girl wore a black tank top over a gray tee, loose black exercise pants, and black sneakers.  Her handwraps were black.

Others in the group had trended that way, picking up the style on their own without Ashley needing to say anything.  Bar was back, and even though it didn’t fit his character, he’d started wearing black eyeliner.  That he was sleeping with Angel had probably played a role in that.

She wondered if J had suggested it to them.

“We could have wicked parties here,” one of Bar’s brothers said.

“No,” Ashley said.  “Not here.  If this serves as my headquarters, it’s a place that will demand respect.  I’ve seen how you cretins get when you party.”

Someone in the group snorted.  She turned her head to look, saw the others glancing at O’Brien, and gave O’Brien a sharp look.

“Yes ma’am.  Entirely right,” the boy said.

“Downstairs, maybe, or in the backyard,” she conceded.

“It’s a good backyard for parties,” J said.  “Have a look.”

Ashley walked to the window, looking down.  There was a small pool, with a garden and places to sit all around the pool.  The second smaller pool off in the corner might have been a hot tub.

J approached.  He stood beside her, looking down.  The others collapsed onto the couches and chairs, or ran downstairs.

“Four jobs.  One was- not a success, not a failure,” she said.  “I didn’t make this much money.”

“You did.  We made out like bandits when we raided the pit.  You can afford first and last month’s rent.  Not much else, but you can earn enough to keep paying for this place.”

“Not much else is a problem,” she said.

Angel had reached the pool below them.  She pulled her shoe off and stuck her foot in, before kicking water at Bar.

“What do you want to spend money on?” J asked.

“Things.  Clothes.  Status.  I need to look the part.  We need money to make money.”

“Based on what I’ve seen and the work I’ve done,” he said.  “I think this matters more than you’re implying.”

Oh, it mattered.

J’s brother was a marketing guy, working with DJs and new bands to craft an image and generate hype.  J had helped out enough to learn things, and he’d done a few small events on his own.

“Other things matter more.  I have enemies to deal with.”

“I get it,” J said.  “Looking like a contender, hiring more people.”

Ashley nodded.

“But look at our guys.  They see this and it says something to them.  They’re down for it.  Your headquarters is as much a part of your status as the dresses you wear.  Same for a musician.”

She wanted it.  She wanted it so badly it made her chest hurt.

“Money opens doors.  I can’t tie up my funds.  The Clockwork Dogs are too dangerous,” she said.  “I can’t throw all of you at them and expect it to be fine.  We’ll need the money to hire mercenaries. ”

“You attacked Blastgerm when we thought he had twenty capes.  Why the doubt now?”

She didn’t immediately reply.

She wasn’t in the zone, not laser focused, confident, and dangerous all at once.  The past few days had been too many steps into unfamiliar territory.  The last job hadn’t been a definitive win.  Her underlings had grumbled, but they’d seemed to accept it as a fact of life.  She had a harder time convincing herself of the same.

It was there, if she reached for it.  The focus, the energy.  Over the past day, she had gone back and forth, almost tapped into it, then shied away.  She’d teetered on the brink.

Something told her that she could indulge herself, and it might even help rectify things in that department.

It would hurt other things, but it would help there.  The thrill, that excitement and joie de vivre.

“You’re the boss.  You make the final call,” J said, breaking the silence.

“Not now,” she said.  “I want to do this right.  We have other priorities.”

“Alright.  I respect that,” J said.

“You’d better,” she answered him.

He smiled, and then he chuckled as he looked.  Down in the pool area, below the window, both Angel and Bar had stripped down to their underwear and jumped in the water.

There was a side of her that wanted to snap at them, but Angel had done fine so far.  If Angel was happy, Ashley could be happy for her.  She had seen enough people of her age group while growing up and watching television to know that sometimes they acted this way.

Ashley had decided not to hire the older ex-cons like Marrow’s group, not to hire the more race-focused gangs, and opted for the young people.  She’d known she would get less experience, more impulsiveness, and this kind of goofiness.  She’d calculated it, and she would accept it.

“Knock,” she said.

J knocked on the window.  Angel had Bar in a headlock under the water, so it was only her that looked up.

“They should get ready to go.  We won’t stay long.”

J beckoned for them to come in.  Angel nodded, freeing Bar.  Bar, in turn, plunged Angel into the water.  The squeal was audible through the second floor window.

“Nick,” Ashley said, “Tell Bar and Angel to go around the side to the front of the house and wait for us there.”

Nick was silent as he got off the couch to obey.  One of his friends went with.

“They won’t hold the house for long,” J said.

“How did you even manage this?”

“Friend of someone my brother knows.  I mean, not to boast, but this is what I’m good at.”

“Boast.  Own your strength.”

“I can drive, I do okay in a fight, nothing special.  I’m… kiiinda street wise?”

“What you are is a complete and utter failure at boasting,” Ashley said.  Someone in the room sniggered.

“But I know this,” J said.

He walked over to the bench where he had left the bags.  He began pulling things out.  Women’s clothes, all black.  Boxes.

“The things you showed me online,” she said.

Ashley remained still as he held one black dress against her front.  Strapless, there were black feathers at the far left and far right of the upper portion, so they swept back off each shoulder.

“Yes,” she said.

He held up another.  Lacy, partially transparent, with patches that were opaque, strategically placed for modesty.

“No.”

“I didn’t think so.  I kind of hoped, though,” he said.

“Save your hope for things with a better chance of happening,” she said.

He stepped around behind her, placing a classy feather boa around her neck.  All of the other boas she’d seen like this had been Halloween things, joke things.  This was glossy, elegant.

“Maybe,” she said.  She turned to the others, seeing that Nick had returned.  “Everyone should get ready to go.  We have things to do tonight.”

“It would need to match with more of an ensemble,” he said.

“It would, yes.”  She remained still as he held out another dress.  Simpler.  Too simple.  There was nothing to it.  “And no.”

“Can we save it?” J asked.  “I think it could work with other pieces.  It’s a good base.”

“If you insist,” she said.

“What do you think about this jacket, then?” J asked.

She waited as he pulled it out and shook it to get it unfolded.  The jacket was the sort that stopped partway down her back.  The sleeves were narrow, and the collar was heavily decorated with bits of plastic.

She liked it, and there was no way she could wear it.  Putting her arms through the sleeves would be tricky.

“No,” she said.

“Anyone else want it?” J asked.  “I don’t think it would fit Angel, but… hm.  Would your girlfriend want it, Nick?”

“Nah,” Nick said.

“I’ll take it,” O’Brien said.

J threw it to the boy.  It was a woman’s jacket, but O’Brien didn’t seem to care.  He wore jeans and tops that were too tight, and he wore them with confidence.  He’d also been one of the first to wear the eye makeup, decorating one eye more than the other.  What had they called it?  Clockwork Orange style.  She’d made a mental note to see it.

It would annoy her, because she liked the jacket, and he would be the one wearing it, but… she liked him well enough.  She liked his confidence, even if he was weird.

She was doing that a lot, over the past few days.  Giving these guys leeway, slack.  Tolerating things she wouldn’t have two weeks ago, just because she liked them.

It worried her, the idea that she was compromising something, or showing a weakness that someone would see.

“I also got two pairs of shoes,” J said.  “If you want to sit on the bench, I can get a pair out for you to try on, while we wait for A and B.”

“Geez, J,” Nick said.

J looked over at Nick.  “What?”

“It’s weird,” Nick said.

“It’s convenient,” Ashley said, voice sharp.  “Having him as an assistant leaves me free to focus on other things.”

“Right,” Nick said.  “Got it.”

“Good,” she said.  “Help J pick this stuff up.  We’re going.”

“Yes, boss,” Nick said.

Good.

The front door was still ajar.  She flicked it open with a sideways motion of her foot.  She was just through the door when she heard it.  She only caught the one word.

“Bitch.”  A word said with an anger she had long been acquainted with.

She turned, her eyes going wide.  Her hand moved and her power crackled.

It was J who dropped a bag, lunging forward, to put himself between her and the others.

“It’s okay!” J said, “Please!”

Insubordination!”

“It was aimed at me,” he said.  “They said I’m your bitch.  Its fine!”

She calmed down slightly at that, but her heart was racing, and the anger didn’t so much dissipate as it unraveled, the threads of it going everywhere, reaching and grasping.

“That’s not fine,” she said.

“I am, kind of.  I don’t mind it.  It’s whatever.”

I mind it,” she said.

The group looked scared.  She liked the fear.  It made more sense than anything, and it was more familiar ground than the unsteady new territory of the past several days.

Much as she’d identified O’Brien when he’d snorted earlier, and when he’d cracked the joke in the car on the way here, seeing where people looked and who looked most guilty, she could identify the culprit as one of Bar’s friends.

He wasn’t a small guy, and he looked like he might wet himself.

It helped her to calm down more.  She waited, staring, as she tried to find the words.  Nobody spoke before she did.  There was a long, hanging moment where her thoughts didn’t seem to progress, and she couldn’t formulate the sentence in her head.

Had she been more focused, it might have been easier.

“Many of you are teenagers,” she said.  “But this isn’t your high school.  I pay you to work under me, to fight for me, and sometimes you’ll bleed for me.  The person standing next to you could be the person who saves you from bleeding one drop too many.  Show each other some fucking respect.”

That earned her nods and noises of acknowledgement.  As she locked eyes with the culprit, he nodded faster than others.

She turned and walked away.

A short set of stairs led down to the front of the house.  Her group’s cars were parked out in front.  Bar and Angel stood by Bar’s car.  Both were dressed, but still soaking wet.

“Everything okay?” Bar asked.

“Mm hmm,” Ashley responded.  She took stock of the pair.  Angel was still visibly dripping, trying to keep a straight face.  “Did you enjoy yourselves?”

“Yeah,” Bar said.

Angel’s straight face slipped.  Ashley bent down, bringing her face closer, and Angel had to fight harder to keep her composure.

Finally, Angel failed to hold herself together, and started giggling.

Ashley smiled, turning to the group that was still making their way down the stairs.  J was at the very rear, locking the house.  “Someone go back inside.  Steal a few towels.”

Angel’s giggles intensified.

“I guess I can pay them back for the towels,” J said.

“Please,” Ashley said.

Angel slugged the heroine.  Fist to face.  She backed off, shaking her hand.  It wasn’t because the heroine was tough, it seemed.  Only because delivering a punch that solid hurt.

The woman backed off, hand reaching up to her hand and mouth.

It was chaos and the chaos was something Damsel could well and truly embrace.  It was simple and it was easy.

Well, not easy.  Four capes against her and her crew.

“Hey, kid,” the big guy of the group said.  “You want to try that with me?”

“No way,” Angel responded.

“Rhetorical question,” the big guy replied.  “You just punched my wife.”

“She shot my boyfriend with a laser, so fuck you!”

He advanced on Angel, shoulders alternating back and forth as he walked.  There was a lightness to his step that suggested super strength.  Angel’s head was constantly in motion as she retreated, checking where the clothing racks and shelving units were and weaving between them without really slowing down.  There was a lightness to her step, too, but it was more of the sort of lightness that came with a boxer’s training.

The woman Angel punched looked up, peering over her hand, and a forcefield materialized in the middle of the storefront.  Angel continued retreating, and her back and head smacked into the wall that had appeared.

“Big guy,” Damsel said.  “Don’t pick on a girl half your age and a third your mass.”

The man turned her way.  It was weird to see a cape without a mask.  He was older, thirty-five or forty, and his blond hair was styled, slicked into position with something that hadn’t faltered in the heat of this skirmish.

“What do you think I should do then?”

“Given the prospect of having to deal with me?  Surrender,” she said, with a smile.

“You’re proposing I stop picking on her, half my age and a third my weight, and I pick on you, half my age and, what, a quarter of my weight?”

“I’m proposing you surrender,” she said.  She flicked her hand out to the side, and her power activated, crackling at her right.

“I’m tough to hurt,” he said.

“Do you really want to test it?” she asked.

“Sure,” he said.  “Why the hell not?”

She spared a momentary glance toward Angel, who ran off to the side, parallel with the forcefield.  The others were already vacating.  They had some stuff, but the looting of the registers and the safe in the manager’s office had been interrupted.

A forcefield appeared at knee-level, an obstacle.

She had some experience with that, having dealt with Licit.  She had experience with constantly fighting to catch and maintain her balance, as external factors worked on her.

She stumbled, and when it looked like she wasn’t going to catch her balance, she used her power, blasting herself in the opposite direction.

Another forcefield had materialized in front of where she’d been about to stumble, positioned to make her landing an uncomfortable one.  The blast that she fired tore the forcefield to shreds.  She stumbled back into a shelf near the registers, loaded with impulse buy items, including a ridiculous number and variety of protein bars.

She hurled herself forward.

“Neil!” the forcefield woman shouted, her voice nasal with her hand still at her nose.  “Get back!”

Damsel blasted.  The big guy was already getting out of the way, throwing himself into the ground in a roll.  He collided with another shelf, and energy arced out, connecting with the metal shelves.

“That went through my field like it was nothing,” the woman said.  “You can’t take that hit.”

Damsel smiled, as the man’s expression went cold.  She walked a few steps, then blasted the long forcefield that had cut their battlefield in half.  The forcefield bent, distorted, and a good two thirds of it dissolved into nothing.  Like plastic crinkling at the touch of fire.

In the background, Angel used the opening to get to the other side of the store and make a break in the direction the others had run.

He twisted his hand around, and the shelf snapped over, the thicker midsection of the shelf slapping into the palm of his hands, fingers gripping it.

He hurled it, and it wasn’t just that he was strong enough to treat it like it weighed nothing- he used his power to thrust it out.  Damsel aimed to shoot it out of the air, but with the speed it flew, it connected with her hand a moment before the power annihilated it.  Flecks of shelf struck Damsel’s face and shoulders.

Her hand stung where the shelf had hit it.  She shook it at her side, and each shake made her power activate, spitting out bursts and licks of space-warping darkness.

The woman shot her with a laser.  The same kind that had burned Bar.  Damsel stumbled, felt the burn a second later, and then she blasted, hurling herself up, away.  Her foot touched on the top of one of the short, shoulder-height shelves, and then she used her power to rocket in their direction.

The woman flew, and the man jumped back.  The directions they moved made it hard to pursue both- and it seemed instinctual.

They knew how to fight as a team, and they didn’t even have the sense to avoid using their civilian names?

She went after the big electric guy, who was busy trying to duck through the aisle between the cashier’s stations.  He couldn’t fly, for one thing, so he was easier to catch, and he was momentarily slower as he tried to avoid demolishing too much of the store’s property.

She stayed low to the ground as she bolted for him, and it paid off as the first laser raked past her, hitting one of the cash stations.

The second laser, though, it hit her.  A glancing hit, but the beam was continuous, not a single shot.  It traced an uneven course along the side of her body, cutting her dress and burning her stomach, and in her haste to get out of the way, she fell.

No.

No!

She screamed her rage.  A blast of her power sent her rocketing forward, at the big one.  A forcefield appeared in front of her, and she shot it- with the effect that it wasn’t a planned shot, and it twisted her shoulder.  It also moved her away from the guy she wanted to hit.

A flicker of light to her left drew her attention.

Another one of the heroes.  This guy had been outside.  He had red-blond hair and a beard, and his costume had black sleeves and legs, with a star at the front.  Two glowing spheres hung over his head, and another hung at elbow height on either side of him.

The first of the spheres kicked off, lunging in her direction.  They weren’t fast, as cape-generated firepower went.

She lunged toward it, and saw the man’s expression change.  Surprise.  He didn’t usually have people go toward his ominous light orbs.

Damsel shot the orb as it drew closer, and her power tore it to shreds.  She closed the distance, and as she ran she could feel the big guy making his approach.  The woman would be getting in position to shoot or use a forcefield to block her movement.

The second orb was drawing close.  She raised a hand to shoot it, and it detonated an instant before her power could make contact.

Annihilation met energy.  Her power didn’t simply erase things in its path, however.  It grew, it shrunk, it bent, twisted, stopped, and accelerated.  As the detonated energy surged into her power, some of it was magnified, and that same energy escaped the mangling that was supposed to immediately follow.

The effect was that the explosion ripped out inconsistently in every direction.  Shelves were knocked over, clothes were scattered, floor and ceiling came to pieces.  The sound of it made her temporarily deaf, leaving her ears to absorb and echo the last thing she’d heard- a whipcrack noise coupled with a buzzing that made her teeth hurt.  The echo leveled out into a high pitched whine.

She picked herself up.  The man with the beard was slower to do the same, and that gave her the opportunity to escape the venue.  Past the hole in the wall, out to the city at night.

The city was brighter than it should have been.  It wasn’t that her senses were rattled, but that there was another of the damned heroes out here.  More energy orbs.  These ones clung to the road, rolling and folding into themselves.

A young lady walked through the loose minefield she’d created.  Black haired, she had a flower symbol in black on her chest, petals stretching up from a bar or hilt.

One of the orbs erupted.  It became a column, a wall, an unfolding wave of rippling energy that danced along the road in an unpreditable path.  Damsel only narrowly evaded it.

There were more lights behind her.  The man with the beard.

She couldn’t look at every threat at once.  Every time she blinked, the bright lights lingered in dots and trails in her vision.  The lights the bearded man made weren’t so distinct from the ones the woman made, when they were dormant.  It made it hard to focus, and her focus wasn’t all there.

Another of the ones on the ground erupted.  It unfolded in a different way, pillars of light that raced in four different directions.  Easier to avoid, but they were coordinating their timing.  He’d lobbed one of his lights at her.  It wasn’t fast, but it wasn’t so slow she could outrun it, and with her vision already struggling amid so much brightness, it was hard to use depth perception to get a sense of how fast it was traveling.

She blasted it, stumbling back, and light at one corner of her field of vision suggested another of the orbs the flower woman had made was exploding.

“Hold off on the explosions until we know what happened in the store!” a woman shouted.  The laser woman.  The sound of her voice was rounded off at the edges, as if Damsel was hearing her from just beneath the surface of water.

“Roger,” the man with the beard said.

They were all here now.

Damsel turned to leave, and saw another.  A woman with an orange symbol at her breast and a glowing energy weapon clasped in both hands.  The energy formed a wedge shape toward the top, almost but not quite an axe.

Damsel slowed down, wary.

“Brandish!” the laser woman shouted.  “She’s dangerous!  Her power goes right through forcefields!”

Brandish didn’t flinch.  “We’re all dangerous, aren’t we?”

Her voice wasn’t of sufficient volume to be heard by her companions.  Only by Damsel.

“Yeah,” Damsel said.

“You’re done.  Your underlings are scattered, they abandoned their car.  You get nothing today.”

“Maybe,” Damsel  said.

“This isn’t ambiguous,” Brandish said.  “You’re done.  You had your fun, now we’re bringing you in.”

Damsel looked back at the other heroes.  They were drawing in closer.

“You said I get nothing today.  I thought I’d get something this time.”

“Damsel of Distress,” Brandish said.  “This thing?  You and I talking, trying to find something profound to say?   Mutual therapy during the pause in the battlefield?  We’re not going to do that.”

“Thinking aloud,” Damsel said.

“That’s how it always is.  Sorry, but I had my fill of talking about my problems a long, long time ago, and I’m not going to talk about or shoulder yours.”

Damsel nodded.  The laser burns hurt like a motherfucker, and her shoulder was throbbing.

She could go after Brandish.  One person to get past.

But that weapon had reach.  She couldn’t blast it like she’d blasted the orbs, without hitting her opponent.

“Some people want to talk to you.  You’re not necessarily in trouble.”

Damsel snorted.  “We’re all in trouble, aren’t we?  We’re all dangerous and we’re all in trouble.  Just… sometimes more obvious.”

Brandish didn’t respond.

A car was coming down the road.  Traffic must have been cut off for the area to have so few cars and people around.  Still, this old sedan had slipped that perimeter.  Not J’s car.  Not Bar’s.

“Go around!” the big guy shouted.  “Situation in progress, there’s danger!”

The car started its halting, three-point turn..

Was it the distraction she needed?

Brandish wasn’t taking her eyes off of Damsel.  It meant Damsel couldn’t run past.  Running to the sides didn’t give her any immediate escape routes, and it would see laser fire, exploding energy flowers and slow moving energy balls hurtling her way.

But, by the flip side of that same coin, it meant that when an object was cast out the window, Brandish was the last person to react.  Her focus was on Ashley.

Damsel twisted her head around, eyes shut, her arm going up to her ear to shield it.

At the same time she turned away, she ran toward.

Not a flashbang, but a flash.  The light was blinding.

Damsel hurried toward the car.  Not her underlings, exactly, but they were hers.  The mercenaries she’d bought with the money she hadn’t spent on the house.  People with equipment, some training, some background.

But in the midst of the light, a shadow loomed.  Brandish hurried her way, weapon held high.

To an extent, it made sense.  A person who manipulated fire often had protections from fire.  This woman created weapons out of light- and she’d bounced back faster than some.

Damsel was left with a moment to decide.

Her power lanced out, twisting, reaching, pointed at the woman with the weapon who threatened to take everything from her.  Aimed with the intent-

No, not the intent.

But the willingness to kill.

The woman reacted.  She condensed down into a sphere, and the dark, rending energy lanced out, swiping and grasping through the air.

Damsel couldn’t be sure if it grazed the orb or just barely missed it, but by chance more than anything else, the lunges and surges of Damsel’s power missed their target.

Brandish didn’t give further chase.  Ashley reached the car, glancing back at the other blinded heroes, the scene with the money she hadn’t been able to claim.

It had been the right decision after all.

The energy and restlessness she’d missed was back.  It had been with her as she stepped off the bus.  It had helped propel her forward as she made her initial moves in Boston.

This was closer to the feeling she had on the bus, but it was a darker feeling.

It was an unfamiliar feeling.

It had been a long, long time since anything but her fingers or her power had run through her hair.  One or the other was usually sufficient to deal with tangles and keep it neat.

When she had been little, her mother had counted the brush strokes out loud, but there were no words.  and there were more than fifty brush strokes.

Her hair was moved aside, and a warm hand touched her shoulder.  It might have been moisturizer that was rubbed into her skin.  There were no childhood memories to touch on for that.  This would be a first.

There was a rhythm to this, like there had been for the brush.  Almost a minute of rubbing, avoiding the burns, giving attention to knots.  There would be a pause, and there would be a soft sound as he rubbed his hands together.  She surmised it was so the moisturizer wouldn’t be cold or cool on application.

Everything careful, everything measured out.  It would be so easy for this same situation to feel like the inverse of what it was.  Her in his power.

As he walked around in front of her, applying moisturizer to her collarbone, his gaze was averted.  Even that was careful and measured out.  His expression betrayed a few moments of indecision, hesitation that anyone would have in a scenario like this, but that indecision didn’t interfere with his ministrations.

It had, before.  She couldn’t even remember how that conversation had gone.  He had handled some of her requests for food, and that had led to him ordering an outfit, bringing it up online and getting her confirmation before having it delivered.  Talk of the outfit had led to mention of her hair.

It was clean, her power cleaned it more thoroughly than anything.  But it wasn’t- anything.  He had offered to buy and apply the conditioner.  He had washed her hair like her mother’s hairdresser had used to.

When he said something, or if he hesitated to long, she had walked way or started doing it herself.  It had happened twice.  Now he seemed to have figured it out.

No words.  If he was going to do something, he would do it in a way that showed respect and no hesitation.

Her injuries were disinfected, cream applied, bandages taped on.  She moved her arm to test that the tape wouldn’t pull, then nodded.  The burn at her side required that her towel be adjusted to reveal just the side of her stomach and her hip, which he did, and she pinned it at the side of her body like that until he was done.

He applied her makeup, with attention to redness and scrapes from past skirmishes.  She kept her eyes closed while he applied makeup around her eyes, then to her lashes.

Her eyes were open as the lipstick kissed her lips.  It moved slowly, pulling at the surface of the lip.  He was ever so careful to avoid a mistake there.

His face was very close to hers for this part.

When he was done with her makeup, he went to the table where her dress was laid out.  He brought it down to the ground, and she stepped into it.  He raised it, his head turned away, and she let the towel fall before the zipper was raised, pulling the dress tight around her midsection and her chest.  Not corset tight, but tight.  He attended to the straps at the neck, and he first buckled on and then adjusted the layers of cloth that went over her one shoulder, covering the bandaged wound.

He brought the shoes, and held them out for her to put her feet into, and she did, and he attended to the straps that secured them to her feet.  He remained kneeling for a few seconds longer than necessary as she turned away from him, taking a few steps to make sure that the fit was right, and that the shoes wouldn’t be uncomfortable.  The dress swished against her legs.

He stood, and turned to go clean up the makeup and other bottles.  The first aid stuff and the packaging needed discarding, this time.  It was much as he had before, though each time they found themselves in this situation, things were a little more involved, with more steps and things being done.

She raised one foot, and she touched the toe of her shoe to his hip.  She pushed it to the side and back., turning him so his rear end was against the table with the things on it, and he faced her, her toes still touching the side of his pelvis.

For all that he pretended to know things about marketing and connections, for his maturity and his way of doing things as he assisted her, he was very much a young guy.  His like for her was as clear as day.

She dropped her foot to the ground, studying him.

This was weird.  He was weird.

So was she.

She studied him until his fondness for her was less… outstanding.  When her eyes went up to his face, she saw a smile.  He was amused.

Impudent.

She’d been distracted. She had things to do.

Armored and administered to by her squire, she left the hotel room, with him a step behind. The assistance her assistant provided her was abnormal, perhaps, but… she felt more human than she had in a long, long time.

She had hands again- they just weren’t her own.

She rubbed her fingertips up and down the skirt portion of her dress, testing the sensations.

The hands weren’t new, but there were still times they didn’t feel like hers.  Especially when her appointments with Riley concluded.

Hands removed, cleaned, tested, tweaked, and given back.  It never felt exactly the same as it had beforehand, and with the way her appointments were scheduled, they ran together, one after another, leaving her annoyed with one adjustment as the next set of people started on the next.

She sat and waited for the men and women in lab coats, with their Wardens’ ID badges around their necks, and she tried to discern just what it was that made her hands not feel quite right.

Here and there, people walked by.  The area was large, and the testing equipment sat without much room to navigate between one piece and the next.

It was Jessica who approached her first, rather than any of the parahuman sciences people.

“They want to do something different today,” Jessica said.  “Digging into one of the weird edge cases.”

“Should I worry?”

“The other way around, maybe,” Jessica said.  “I told them they should be more concerned, and that we shouldn’t surprise you.  I’m here to break the news and ask permission.”

“Okay.”

“Edict.  Do you harbor any strong feelings?”

“Some feelings, but not strong ones.  Nothing that should matter.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Ashley said, with sincerity so grave it could have been mocking, even though it wasn’t.

“Do you want me to stay?” Jessica asked.  “I can referee.”

“You have things to do, I’m sure.”

“Then I will see you in… one hour and twenty-three minutes.”

“I look forward to it,” Ashley said.

Then Jessica was gone, and Ashley was alone again.  People walked past her and they avoided looking her way.  She was a nonentity, periodically touching things or touching finger to finger with hands  that weren’t real.

“Ashley, thank you for coming in again,” a scientist said.  He appeared out of nowhere, clipboard in hand, and he said the words so automatically that they didn’t have any meaning at all.  “Have you started on any new medicine?”

“I have not, but I would refer you to my personal doctor for a more accurate answer,” she said.

She didn’t miss the slight changes in expression that went with that.  They were scared of Riley.

“Did you log your dreams in your diary?” he asked.

“I did.  Same as always.”

Her bag was beside her on the doctor’s bench, and the diary was on top.  Writing was a chore, but she was supposed to do it and filling out the diary meant she could do both things at once.

“Any changes?”

“No changes.”

“Alright.  That’s good.  Your therapist told you that we’re bringing someone in, I hope.”

“Yes.  It’s fine.”

“I’ll be back shortly, then.”

It was bizarre that she was in a room with so many electronic devices, with special cameras and scanners, testing machines, exercise machines and everything else they might need to study a given, and yet she was only here to sit on a doctor’s bench.  The only tool or recording device that was being used here was the diary.

She saw Edict approach.  The woman wore the same costume now that she had three years prior.

“Long time no see,” Edict said.  “You don’t mind my coming in?”

“No.”

The rest of the scientists that Ashley saw with any regularity were now arriving.  A few unfamiliar faces stood off to the side, with one of the senior scientists whispering to them.  It didn’t look like a secret from her so much as an attempt to catch them up.  Too efficient, too measured, and too great in quantity to be deception.

“Are you well?” Ashley asked.

“As well as anyone is these days,” Edict said.  “People in my area had a hard time with winter.  I did too.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Ashley said.  “I was more fortunate than some.  I was close to resources.”

“I’m glad,” Edict said.  “We’re here about dreams, was it?”

“No,” a scientist said, at the same time Ashley answered, “Not dreams.”

“Dreams came up,” Edict said.

“They’re related, and I track mine, but this is memory,” Ashley said.

“You’ve seen things relevant to me?”

Ashley looked at the various scientists.  “Yes.  I remember things relevant to you.”

“We were hoping to confirm and verify.”

“Okay,” Edict said.

“Your son’s name,” Ashley said.  She reached out for her diary, and a scientist handed it to her.  She found her pen and wrote the name out.

The grip on the pen was hard to maintain, the movements stiff.

It was a good thing the word was short:  Shiloh.

It was better to write it than to say it out loud, because Edict wore a costume, and her identity deserved preserving.  Ashley showed Edict.

“I can confirm.  You know my little boy’s name.  That bothers me, if I’m honest.”

Ashley nodded.  “I know that you had a routine with the woman who worked the reception in Stafford.  Shandra.”

She could have gone on, she was even tempted to, to outline all the things she knew and easily get them confirmed.  She bit her tongue.

“I can confirm,” Edict said.

“I know you had your neighbor as the go-to babysitter for your son, when work intruded.  She was a high school student, and would pick up your son on her way back.”

“Confirm,” Edict said.  Her forehead creased with a worry line.

“For overnight stays, you’d use your aunt.  You didn’t like doing it because she didn’t know or approve about your cape life.”

“Confirm.  How do you know this?  What’s going on?”

“I have memories that aren’t mine,” Ashley said.  “The memories are as clear as any of my own.  I know a lot of things, but I’m trying to think of things that only you would know, so they can confirm.”

“Yeah, well, you’re thinking of good ones,” Edict said.  “I’m not comfortable with this.  I’m concerned, actually.”

“I mean no harm, now,” Ashley said, but scientists were already talking over her, asking Edict things.  Shouting the statement would defeat the point.

“Has anyone reported anything like this to you?” one scientist asked.

“No.”

“Edict.  On a scale of one to ten, how likely would you say it is that your power, used on any person, could establish a permanent link to that someone?”

“I don’t know,” Edict said.  “Two.  But I do know that I’m very, very tired of my power having hidden facets to it.  I can’t rule anything out.”

“Ashley, on a scale of one to ten, with your extensive background being on the recipient side of Edict’s power, how likely would you say it is that a connection or link was established when she used her power on you?”

“One.  I don’t think it’s likely.”

“It upsets me,” Edict said.  “My memories are mine.”

“They are,” Ashley responded.  “I’m not especially happy about it either.”

“On that note,” one scientist asked.  “Do you feel any less like yourself, Ashley?”

“Yes,” Ashley said.  She thought about leaving it at that, but these people were the same ones who had agreed to pay her for her time and her trouble.  “But this memory being in the mix and Edict’s power don’t have anything to do with that.  Maybe this an avenue to pursue, on why this memory bleed happened, but I haven’t had the opportunity to be one hundred percent me for a long, long, long time.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Eclipse – x.4

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

She regretted sleeping.  There were businessmen and entertainers who could be up for seventy-two hours without sleeping, and she was pretty sure she understood why.  She chased that.  She liked to think of it as hibernating and storing energy for the days she needed to do more.

Sleeping was dangerous when every second counted.

Sleeping was a soft reset, and when things were working, a reset was the last thing she wanted.

But the body had its demands, and as she felt the aches and pains of the skirmish the night prior, a skirmish where she hadn’t even touched anyone, she had rationalized that she needed rest to let her body repair itself.  She didn’t even remember the act of lying down.

Damsel didn’t feel any less sharp than she had the day before, but her mood felt like it rested at a different angle.  She still had momentum, she had the ability to do this if she could keep her power under control, but her thoughts kept looping back on themselves.

Not second guessing.  No, she was confident.  She was also very aware of how any one person, situation, or even bad luck could pull the rug out from under her.

Very, very aware.

The others were standing around their car.  Stocky brick buildings lined this street, and a path between two buildings led to a narrow strip of grass and sidewalk at the edge of a little river.  She couldn’t stand still, so she walked around the block, traveling the line of the river.  She paid attention to rooftops, and to the residential buildings with signs of being lived in.

Sleep was dangerous because she couldn’t know what it would take away.  She had rolled the dice, and she counted herself lucky that she had woken up ready to safeguard her accomplishments.

She had minions, and she had an objective.  Her triumphs from the night prior were stacking up with other recent wins.  Evading the PRT, dodging the cops at the station, an intimidating show as she revealed her cape self to the local teens.  They weren’t important, she hadn’t even bothered to remember their names or which one it had been that had invited her to dinner.  The show had been the important thing.

Damsel knew she needed to eliminate someone important to make room for herself to step into the scene.  She didn’t want a big neighborhood, not to start.

The Brothers were sounding like they wanted to cooperate with the Clockwork Dogs.  That took them out of the picture.  The Four might go elsewhere.

There were people in other areas, but she wanted Deathchester.  That left two opponents, and they were in the area to look into one of them.

A little wooden bridge with railings that looked like they were made entirely of rust gave the residents of these row-houses and blocky apartments a way to get past the river and approach the water.  Damsel approached the bridge and stood up on the middle bar of the railing, the top bar pressing into her shins.

With the higher vantage point, she could see a man by the water.  He wore a costume that was predominantly an armor of interwoven branches in a Celtic knot pattern.  Black and green cloth beneath covered most of the rest of him, with what might have been hints of black skin visible at the back of his neck and between where his sleeve stopped and his woven-branch gauntlet began.

He had his back to her, reaching up to trees and gathering leafless branches, or stooping down to pick things up off the ground.  Now and then, he put a branch into a gap in his armor, so it stuck up and away.  Some still had dry leaves on them.

One of Blastgerm’s capes.  She turned away.

Even the simple act of pulling her hood down was something she had to calculate.  It required use of her hands, which meant she had to calculate the risk against the reward.  What was the chance she was seen and her white hair was recognized?  Adjusting her hood to hide her hair and face reduced that chance, but it introduced the chance her power would activate.

What would happen if she accidentally used her power?  People would notice the sound, and she could find herself in a fight.

If it came to that, she could deal with him.

Destroy the bridge, if he was slow.  It would force him to jump over.  If he was faster, she could go to the building.

If she could make enough noise and cause enough damage while getting away, it would draw the attention of the heroes.  That, in turn, would make the Blastgerm group’s life harder.

She adjusted her hood, tense, and tucked her hair behind her ear.

The villain with the wooden armor continued to gather branches, stopping to pick up a dandelion, placing it in the pile.

J had arrived in the time it had taken her to walk around the block of buildings.  Bar, Bar’s friends, and Angel were already there.  Angel’s brother was absent.

J had brought food.  Breakfast sandwiches and coffees.

“Help yourself,” J said.

Eating was risky like sleeping was risky.  Eating was supposed to be a social thing, but for her it was a gamble, with the odds badly tilted against her.  A loss meant embarrassment.  A win meant ‘normal’.

“Why?” Damsel asked, instead of taking the offer.

“Hm?”

“Why this?  What’s your angle?”

“Angle?” J asked.

“Not everyone and everything has an angle,” Angel said.

Naive girl.  Still, naivety was something Damsel could live with, if Angel remained competent elsewhere.

Damsel ignored the statement and stared at J, waiting for her answer.

J gave.  “You’re paying me, hopefully.  Them?  They’ll probably have my back if we end up doing something risky.”

“Yeah,” Damsel said.  It made sense.  She could even respect it.  Looking around, she asked, “See anyone or anything on your way in?”

“Sorry, I wasn’t looking,”

“Look next time,” she said.  “This entire city is enemy territory.  Everything matters.”

“Yes ma’am,” J said.

She turned her gaze toward him.  There wasn’t any hint of sarcasm or irony in the ‘ma’am’.

The others looked serious.  For now, at least, she had their respect.  There’d be the one who questioned her- there always was in the movies and television shows.  It was human nature, to push against authority.  It stood to reason, then, that someone in the group was harboring seditious thoughts.

She would have to make an example of them, the moment they revealed themselves.  For now she would work with her new subordinates.

“One of Blastgerm’s capes is on the other side of the building.  There will be more,” Damsel said.  “Are we expecting anyone else from last night to show up?”

“No,” Bar said.  “I could call others if you want.”

Damsel shook her head.  “Let’s get in the cars.”

Bar had one car, and J had another.  Damsel got into the passenger seat of Bar’s car, and he started it up.  Angel and one of his friends were in the back seat.

They made it a block before they saw more.  A woman, tall and slender, had pointed ears and black hair that was ankle length even when braided.  Her mask was a rounded plane with grooves etched into it, black beady eyes built in.  Her costume was a skintight suit with lines on it in the same pattern as the grooves, running vertically and crossing into flourishes at the top and bottom.  She had two other capes with her- a man in a skintight top and heavy pants with a pillar that he rested one hand on.  His weapon.  Rotten Apple was with them, talking or telling them something.

On a rooftop nearby, a cape with a green hood covering their head, stylized horns protruding, had wings or a cape that draped around them in a loose spiral or wrap, sufficient to cover ten people.

Blastgerm hadn’t been lying.  They’d put out a call and they had more capes actively guarding or patrolling in their general territory than a lot of teams had in their whole roster.

Angel whistled, long and low.

“No need to whistle.  This is nothing,” Damsel said.

People were hanging around in the general vicinity of the capes.  It wasn’t a lot- one here, one there.  But they were entirely too comfortable with the presence of villains to not be affiliated with them.

Not soldiers, at a glance, but people who ran errands and handled things beyond fighting, like J seemed to want to do for her faction.

“Blastgerm was always small,” Angel said.  “Dealers you heard about in the news once a year.  Sometimes it’d be just Blasto or just Poison Apple.”

“Poison Apple?”

“Or Rotten Apple.  She changes it around sometimes.”

Ashley nodded.  “They’re not small now.  It’s fine.”

She spotted another one.  There was a crowd of a type she recognized.  Back in Stafford, there had been Kidney Stan’s group.  Useless fuckheads, stoners, imbeciles.  They’d been the point of failure for one of her jobs.  She had her suspicions that they were the ones responsible for tipping off the heroes about her trip to Boston.  The cops at the station, Edict at the truck raid.

The group was surrounding the cape that had been in the company of Blasto and Rotten Apple the night before.  The half-lizard, half-snake creation with the wooden head had climbed up him, and was perched on his shoulder.

“See that?” she asked.

“Geez.  Out of the woodwork,” Bar said.

“The names are so disappointing,” Ashley said.  “Blastgerm?  Blasto?  Rotten Apple?  Woodwork would have been better, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes,” Bar said.

“I like Damsel of Distress,” Angel said.

“Sucking up?” Bar asked.  “I’m joking.”

Jokes?  Ashley wondered.  Where did she draw the line in a subordinate testing her limits of authority?

“No.  I like the name, is all,” Angel said.

“That’s because you have good taste,” Ashley said.  “Clockwork Dogs?  Why not the Cogs of War?”

“They have names that mean peace and cooperation,” Bar said.

Ashley snorted.  Her eyes scanned the surrounding area for more.  A few minutes passed.  When she didn’t see more, she indicated for Bar to stop.

The other car caught up with them as they climbed out of the vehicle.

Ashley paced a little, thinking.  She was annoyed.  They were so small, and all they had to do was send a message online to get that many people?  How was that right or fair?

“That’s a lot,” one of Bar’s friends said.  “Too much?”

“No,” Ashley said, stopping.  “No.  I could handle that, given a chance.  I’ll have to.  I will take over this area.”

“Blasto’s a tinker, you know,” Bar said.  “He’s working on something big.  He keeps pulling in resources.”

“You hear about that sort of thing,” J said.  “Tinker keeps a low profile for a while, keeping busy, and then they do something big.  Building penthouse folds away to reveal the death laser with city-wide range.”

“The building mounted death laser only ever happened one time,” Bar said.

J snickered.

Ashley wasn’t laughing.  “Talk to me about Detente’s group.  He’s established?”

“Newly,” Bar said.  “He and Accord have a bunch of people with powers.  They’ve put up a good showing.  Smart, efficient, rich.”

“Where is he from?  Where is Accord from?”

Bar shrugged.

“They come out of nowhere and they’re this prepared?  They have this much money to throw around?”

“That’s them having mastermind powers, maybe,” Bar said.

“They’re strong?”

Bar shrugged.

“They’re small fish,” J said.

“Nobody’s a small fish when they have powers,” Damsel said.  “Everyone’s a threat.  Everyone has to be dealt with.”

“Sure,” Bar said.

“What about Digger?  The biker.”

“Less of a good showing.”

“The Four?”

“They’re around.  They haven’t done much,” Bar said.

“They were active in New York for a bit,” Angel said.  “They’re freaky.”

“I’m scary too,” Ashley said.  “I’m not worried.”

“If they didn’t have any powers at all, I’d be scared of them,” Angel said.  “They’re into bioweapons.  Their mindset is to poison everyone, and have their guys recover faster.  They use healing powers and equipment to reduce the damage to their side.”

J spoke up, “They’re weirdly popular, I think it’s the style.  There are galleries of art online with them surrounded by their colorful plague clouds.”

The idea nettled Ashley.  It made her want to go right after the Four.

It wasn’t a good impulse.  She shoved it down deep inside her, and she looked in the direction of Blastgerm’s claimed neighborhood.  Blasto and Rotten Apple.

“You have a plan?” Bar asked.

“Yeah,” she said.  “For now, hang around Blastgerm’s area.  Figure out where they’re going and where they hang out.  If they’re selling anything, figure out where things come from and where they go.”

“How long?” Bar asked.

“Until evening.  I don’t want to waste time.”

Bar nodded slowly.  “I guess this is where I bring up money, then.”

Damsel stood up straighter.  Her eyes narrowed.

“You haven’t paid us anything yet.  You said you’d pay what Marrow was asking for.  Two thousand or five percent.”

“This is part of that.”

“This is a full day of our time,” Bar said.  “For promises?”

“I showed you what I can do last night.  I’ll show you something tonight, and you’ll be glad you helped when it comes together.”

“I don’t get it,” he said.  “This plan, the long-term goal.”

“You don’t need to get it.  You need to listen,” she made her voice cold.

She watched as his expression rotated between three different emotions.

She couldn’t put a name to each emotion, but she could imagine what sort they’d be.

“Yeah,” Bar said.  “Two thousand or five percent of the take?”

“And a better position when I take power and territory for myself.”

Bar’s eyes moved as he seemed to engage in some mental calculations.  “Yeah.  Okay, fine, we’ll go take a look around.”

He signaled his friends.

Damsel thought about making an example of him.  She couldn’t be sure if he was leaving and not coming back or if he was going to go through the motions while putting little effort in.

She looked at the two who remained.  J and Angel.

“Are you going to run too?” she asked.  “You’ll regret it later.”

“I’m not going to run,” Angel said.  She rubbed the back of her neck.  “I’m not good at anything except punching people and being punched.  I heard we can hang around the beach or the fighting pit at the south end, and sometimes people will round up helping hands for work.  I’ll put on a stupid costume and be a henchman if it pays.”

“No need for a stupid costume,” Damsel said.  She reconsidered.  “Maybe a costume later on, but it won’t be stupid.  I don’t do stupid.”

Angel shrugged.  “I’ll do this, ‘cuz I don’t lose anything.  I can learn stuff, seeing how they operate.  You need me for a job later, I’ll do that too.”

“You’ll be rewarded,” Ashley said.  She smiled.  “Go.  We meet at the same place as this morning.”

“I’ll pick you up if you want,” J told Angel.  Angel smiled at him.

“Sure.  But I’ll walk in,” Angel said.  “We’ll cover more ground if we stay separated.”

“Good,” Damsel said.

Angel walked away.  J remained, walking around his car.  He held out the remaining sandwich for her.  She took it.

“This needs to count,” he said.  “Even for Angel, and Angel has low expectations.”

“How it counts is my business, not yours,” she said.

J nodded.  “Sure.”

“It will count.  Loyalty will be rewarded,” she said.  “I think I understand what Angel wants.  She makes sense to me.”

J nodded.  “I’ve seen her around.  She’s cool.  Just don’t make her mad.”

“I don’t intend to.  I think I know what will speak to Bar’s type.  To others.  Money.”

J nodded.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“Money,” he said, without hesitation.

She met his eyes, studying him.  Brown eyes, a face covered in freckles, brown hair, and an expression with a measure of determination.

“Go earn it then.  Gather information.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Things threatened to crumble.  One partial night’s sleep, and people had forgotten her triumph, doubted her power, doubted her.  Her own doubts seeped in.

It was her against what seemed like a dozen people with powers.

This was what I was meant for, she thought.  Excitement swelled in her chest as she considered the options, the idea of coming out the other side victorious.

Pyrokinetics thrived when there were nearby fires.  Capes who could manipulate water could operate at peak efficiency when near a body of water.

So it went.

She wielded annihilation and chaos.  If that was so, then she would do the equivalent of the pyrokinetic setting fire to the building they were in.

That she was doing this with no other powers on her side, against so many enemies?

Not a concern, she told herself, a cold sort of excitement setting up shop in her chest as she worked to banish the doubts.  Not a concern.  Everything has been preparation for this.

Even the fact that I’ve been completely alone for three years.

Ashley stretched as she left the court office.  The patrol guard cleared his throat.

She didn’t stop stretching at the throat clearing.

The court office was in recess.  People stood, stretched, and headed in the direction of the vending machines.

“That could have gone better,” Tristan said.  “Rain got an easier set of proctors.”

“I didn’t expect to get it easy,” Ashley said.

Kenzie was fidgeting, distressed.  Ashley put a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder, and her little friend looked up at her with a smile.  The fidgeting stopped.

That fidgeting would be because of the video.  Kenzie would want it to be shown and be anxious about it being shown at the same time.  The group wouldn’t like it if the video came out, Kenzie would be dreading both the idea of the video coming out and the video not coming out.

“I don’t think they were being fair,” Sveta said.  “You weren’t uncooperative.”

“She wasn’t,” Victoria said.  “I’m really hoping they’re open to giving us a chance to talk at the end.  I want to hammer that in.  I had a letter from Gilpatrick, but they haven’t mentioned it.”

Ashley didn’t think it was fair either, but she kept it to herself.  Going down that line of thinking was the kind of thing that set herself off.

Tristan added, “I took my letter for Ashley in after Rain’s tribunal, handed it to the one guy who looks like a mortician.  He was pretty dismissive.”

“Could it have been process?  Not wanting to seem biased?” Sveta asked, almost hopefully.

“No excuse to be rude,” Tristan said.

“Maybe he didn’t like your face,” Chris said.

“Then they have no taste,” Kenzie said.  “I think Tristan and Byron have very nice faces.”

“I’m really not sure how to take that,” Tristan said.

“Is there a process, if this tribunal doesn’t handle things appropriately?” Sveta asked.  “Higher court we can go to?”

“No,” Victoria said.  “The purpose of this is to handle stuff without getting tied up in more complicated procedures.  Weeding out the obvious cases before it gets put in front of the proper court.”

“There should be some process.  Some emergency go-to,” Sveta said.

Ashley felt agitation creep over her.  It was fear and conviction with an energy to it, and the anxiety, impulses, and restlessness could in of themselves generate more anxiety, impulse, restlessness and energy.

Left to run rampant, these feelings and experiences that multiplied themselves would grow in ways that formed constructions and ideas, like how a cloud could resemble a face or a dog.

Some of the therapy she’d had helped her to recognize it for what it was.  Actually dealing with it was the harder thing.

“If it’s okay,” Ashley said, with more force than necessary, aiming the statement at nobody in particular.  “I’d rather not talk or think about the tribunal right now.”

“Sure, sorry,” Sveta said.

“We can talk about anything you want,” Victoria said.

“Talk about anything,” Ashley said.  “The noise of talking would be nice, so long as it isn’t about this.”

“I’m making a camera that takes pictures and video of the past,” Kenzie said.  “It’s only twenty five pounds, and I’m slimming it down.”

There were overlapping responses.  People sounded impressed, enthused.

“That actually sounds awesome,” Chris said.

“Kenzie is awesome,” Ashley said.  “It’s about time you caught up with the rest of us, Chris.”

Kenzie looked up to her, then tipped over, head smacking into Ashley’s shoulder.  She put her arm behind Ashley’s back in a one-armed hug.

“There are catches,” Kenzie said.

“Of course,” Chris responded.  He made no mention of the hug.

“It takes a while to spin up.  I’m still working on that.  And it reads particles that don’t move in straight lines, so it gets fuzzy fast.”

“Fuzzy can be workable,” Victoria said.  “In forensics alone, that kind of camera could be a lifesaver.”

“I’m still figuring out balances.  Time is something I usually work around if I can,” Kenzie said.  Her legs kicked below the bench.  “I stole some tech.”

“Stole?” Chris asked.

“Tinkers can read powers and people and get data that they can then use for their tinkering stuff.  A tinker who makes flamethrowers can use my blueprints and figure out how to do some targeting tech.  Or, like, even if it’s not powers, I could do deep scans of a thinker and I could get power data I could use for my cameras.  Which is where right now I wish I could talk to a really good precog or postcog, and see how their power works.”

“Don’t we all,” Victoria said.

“Anyway,” Kenzie said, “We saw some of this with Snag and the others, remember?”

“The Speedrunners,” Tristan said.  “Yeah.”

“Yeah.  Every tinker is different so it’s not every tinker that does it, but it’s most, I think.  We all want our data and inspiration.  When I went to pick up my big projector box, I sent some flying cameras in.  Which was safe to do since Mama Mathers was gone, right?”

Ashley imagined that was the same time Kenzie had collected the image of the landscape where she’d killed Beast of Burden, for the falsified video.

“So I searched around to see if there was anything interesting.  Some of the tinker throwing stars and junk were lying around.  I had my camera grab that.  Now I’m reverse engineering it.”

“That’s great,” Ashley said.

“Except the team’s falling apart, and I don’t have anyone to do this with.  You might not be there to see it.”

“I might not,” Ashley said.  She felt a pang.

She didn’t want this.  Rain did, but for her, it was something she had to do, a necessary evil.

“But you didn’t want to talk about that.  I’m sorry,” Kenzie said.

Ashley shook her head.

Victoria took the empty space on the bench beside Ashley.  She showed her her phone.

It was a picture of Presley, hair dyed an inconsistent color that was more gray-white than pure white.

The freckles reminded her of Amy, which would have been a tricky topic to raise.

It reminded her of J, a memory from a past life.  Trickier still to bring up or raise.

There was a low, deep rumble as her power did its work.  She had to run to get away from the cloud of dust that exploded out in every direction.

She was already moving to the next point.  She lashed out with a sweep of her warped darkness, targeting one corner of a building.  Her arm raked out, trying to cover as much area as possible, to destroy as much brick and beam, insulation and strut.  A blast of her power provided the kick to get her clear of the area as the wall came down.

She did the same to the other corner of the building.  Where bricks were stacked atop one another, they started cascading down in sheets, crashing to the ground.  Other things fell down, and the sound of the impacts and cracks had a beautiful sound to them, with the water magnifying some of the acoustics.

J’s car was a lawn and a sidewalk away from her, moving at a slow but steady clip as he tried to stay close to her and keep away from the rolling cloud of debris.

This was the distraction.  They were near the water, not that far from where the bridge and the cape with the Celtic-knot wooden armor had been.  Her power was taking down segments of old buildings with no lights on.  A glance inside had verified they were empty.

Now- she felt the strain in her legs as she ran, catching up with the car.  She didn’t hop in, but hopped on, standing at the edge and bracing her forearm against the door and the top of the car.  Her power flickered but touched only the air.

On impulse, as they passed a large tree, she blasted it.  It toppled behind her, and it made a hell of a lot of noise.

J stepped on the gas.  The car peeled out.

This would help draw capes away from the center of operations.  Others were out there- only some of Bar’s group, the ones that had been most curious about what they were doing, and Angel was out there, keeping watch.

The trick was to get enough speed that they could circle around and hit the target from the side or behind.  Going straight there wouldn’t work, because it would mean running headlong into anyone coming to see what was happening.

One empty building toppled, another two with one exterior wall partially or wholly collapsed.  One tree brought down to block a road.

They passed through an intersection, and she had the briefest of glimpses of the capes on the next road over.  A larger group than she’d expected were on their way to investigate.

J stopped the vehicle.  She hopped off, kicking the door closed, then broke into a run.

Lights streaked across the sky.

That would be phase two of the distraction.

Damsel had made Angel notify the heroes that Blastgerm were up to no good.

At worst, what?  She was outnumbered thirty to one instead of twelve to one?  Past a point, it didn’t matter.

At best?  They were out of position and tied up with outside concerns.

Her power blasted the door open.  A heavy thud behind her marked the arrival of a cape, a moment after she disappeared inside.  A big guy- not one of the ones she’d seen during the day’s patrols.  He had a metal helmet and painted skin, and walked with a hunched back.

Angel and J had independently come to the conclusion that this was Blasto’s headquarters.  It was where the capes kept entering and leaving.  Those who sold drugs apparently came and went from here as well.

Not bright, to shit where one ate, but he might have told himself that he had more than enough powered bodyguards.

The big guy was stampeding his way inside.  She hit the stairs and she went up.  The big guy followed, charging his way after her.

Time to burn this building down, she thought.

She blasted behind her, and she took out a chunk from the floor of the hallway.  The angle meant she was thrown up and back, and it wasn’t her usual style.  With the usual sort of blast, she could at least try to keep her balance.  Here, she toppled and slid on the smooth laminate floor.

The big guy, catching up, had to stop to avoid falling in.  He gathered himself together on the most solid ground, muscles standing out, and he leaped.

She wasn’t even fully to her feet as she stuck her hands out.  A wide area blast, concentrated to get as much of the floor as possible, where he was due to land.  It gave him less chance of finding some footing, and it kept pieces from raining down on the unsuspecting below.

He crashed into the edge of it, and he fell through.

She used her power with wanton abandon.  Doors?  Gone.  Walls?  Gone.  One blast knocked out the power on her floor.

Empty rooms, offices, a room with bunk-beds and storage crates.

Nothing on this floor.

She blasted a hole in the floor and dropped down.

The big guy was on the floor below, in the midst of trying to scrabble up to the floor above.  He slipped, fell, and spotted her.

Her power flared involuntarily, costing her a moment.  She tried to make it look intentional by blasting the nearest wall, as if it was a prelude to the full maneuver.

The big guy barreled toward her, and she had to find traction amid dust before jumping into the hole she’d just made.  Another hole in the floor made it hard for him to follow her.

Walls and doors were nothing.  They were a gesture away from being an opening.  She used that opening, navigating the floor, while the big guy gave chase.  Somewhere along the line, he stopped running after her.

She cleared the floor, found nothing, and dropped down.

On this floor, she could smell the drugs.  She followed the smell and found a conference room turned to nefarious purpose.  Packaging, plastic bags, and mounds of green leaves were set out.

She didn’t have to go far to find the office with some of the money.  She was careful with her hands as she picked up a stack of bills.

Something detonated just to the left of her.  A cloud of noxious green gas surrounded her, and she stumbled away.

“That’s not yours.”

Rotten Apple.

Damsel smiled, walking around the room to avoid the expanding cloud of gas.

“This was a decent headquarters,” Rotten Apple said.  A green sphere appeared in her hand, then levitated above it.  “Now look at it.”

The ceiling in the hallway sagged in tatters.  There were holes in quite a few walls, large enough for a person to walk through.  The gas was thinning out at its periphery, giving the room a general green haze.

A second orb appeared, joining the first one that still orbited Rotten Apple’s hand.  The costumed woman gripped it, drawing her arm back to throw.

Damsel brought her arm around, pointing at the money.  “Do anything and I obliterate it.”

“You don’t want to do that.”

“You don’t want me to do it either.  But I will if I think it weakens your group.”

Rotten Apple’s eyes narrowed.

“Surr-” Damsel started, before being interrupted with coughing.  The gas.

“Surrender,” she said, succeeding on the second attempt at speaking.  “Believe me, you don’t want me to keep going.  You might have an army, but they have to get here first, and they’ll need to watch their footing.  I can bring this whole building down, and I’m betting I can be the one that survives if we’re both inside when I do it.”

“Sure,” Rotten Apple said.  She looked at the money.  She flicked the ball and it flew through a hole in the wall to explode in another room.  “There.  I’m unarmed.”

“Hands up,” Damsel said.

“That doesn’t matter when it comes to parahumans.”

“Call it a token thing.  I like my gestures of respect.”

Rotten Apple slowly raised her hands, until both were visible.

She’d had another orb, before.  Where was it now?

Damsel looked, and she spotted it at the last second, almost invisible with the haze of gas in the room.  It was on the ground, and it had rolled past her.

The orb detonated with some force, and the money was scattered into the air throughout the room.  Damsel was forced to back away from it as the miasma visibly colored the air.

Rotten Apple was already preparing for another shot.

Damsel could have used her power to shoot the money, but it was so scattered that she would have hit a relatively small fraction.

Instead, she ducked through the doorway and blasted the floor of the hallway.

Down.  Down to safer territory.

Rotten Apple followed.  Another orb was thrown, and Damsel wasn’t quick enough to get out of the way.  The detonation knocked her over, and the resulting fall was unexpected and hard.  Gas swept over her as she worked to find her feet.

It felt like standing up took a lot of effort.  Was that the gas?

As the gas burned at her nostrils and tickled her throat, threatening to force her into a coughing fit that would have her inhale more gas, she raised a hand.

The use of her power knocked her over and did force a resulting, involuntary intake of breath, but it also destroyed the gas that was touched, and it annihilated the very air.

Gas flowed into the resulting vacuum, where it could be blasted again.

It didn’t eliminate everything, but it thinned the gas, and it gave her a way to hold things off until she could find her feet properly again.

She saw Rotten Apple lob another sphere, and blasted, hoping to get the gas before it could expand too far.  Instead, the power connected with the sphere.  It was wiped out of existence, with no gas resulting.

Damsel made her way down to the floor below, putting another hole in the ground and jumping through before Rotten Apple could do anything.

The ceiling of the floor below, as it turned out, was a little higher than average.  She had to use her darkness blast to break the velocity of her fall.  Her landing was a hard one, all the same, knees banging on the floor.

A lab.  Improvised, dirty, panes of plexiglas with whatever glue or caulk had been used to connect them together running in dribbles and gobs.  Metal bands helped keep them from coming apart- which was good, because each seemed to be under pressure.

Damsel straightened, aware that Rotten Apple would be coming after her as soon as she could access the stairs.

Vats.  A row of them against one wall, dirty and smeared enough that the contents weren’t immediately obvious.

Humanoid figures, each one different from the others.

Blastgerm’s large roster of villains from this online ad they’d put out. They weren’t real people.

Damsel smiled, looking at it all.

They’d cheated.

There was something else at the far end of the room.  It looked like a boiler, but it had the same rushed, improvised feel that the vats did.  Metal, welding, tubes winding around it, and a glass aperture, showing a sea of what looked like green moss on the other side.

“Step away from that,” Rotten Apple said.  She was breathing hard.

Ashley extended a hand out toward a vat.  The intention was to threat, but her power sparked out.  It cut into thick glass, into water, and into the figure on the other side.  She flinched back, holding her arm against her chest as she stumbled away.

She stood up straight, forcing a smile she didn’t feel.  The remains of the body were tipping forward as the fluids emptied from the vat, and they were breaking apart like wet toilet paper as they brushed against the edges of the broken glass.

Rotten Apple wasn’t acting like Damsel had just killed someone.

“Of course Blasto isn’t around, at a time like this,” Rotten Apple said.  “The asshole is probably doing something stupid like sleeping.”

“Can’t afford to sleep if you want to claim your piece of Boston,” Damsel said.

“You realize we’re going to come after you.  If you fuck us on this Boston thing, we’ll make it a lifelong goal to come after you.”

“Don’t bother with threats,” Damsel said.  “I don’t scare easy, and I hold the cards right now.  I can do more damage to all of this than you can do anything to me.”

Rotten Apple shook her head.  “The soldiers we sent out are due back soon.  Blasto could wake up any time, and he could wake these guys up.”

“Or,” Damsel said.  “You could give me a share of that room for the money, along with a pledge that you won’t take Deathchester, and I’ll keep silent about what you’re doing with these legions of false capes that are joining you.”

“Armsmaster against Bastion, who wins?”

The replies overlapped.  People were amused, happy.  Angel and her brother were here.  There were a few scattered others that J had invited.  Ashley wasn’t sure how to label the scene, even, where J and Angel both wore bathrobes, like they were some kind of honor.  Drink was being passed around freely among the teenagers.

They’d opted for slightly less money and roughly equivalent value in the drugs.  Ashley didn’t care about the drugs, didn’t want to be intoxicated, but she was content to let her immediate underlings take what made them happy.

Now they were being celebrated, if that was the right word.  They were teenagers or men and women in their early twenties, and they’d wanted an excuse to party.  Thin justification, but she wasn’t going to say no.  They had provided the information, she had conducted the raid, and money had been collected and doled out.   It helped that the excuse for the partying was that she’d succeeded.  People were paying attention to her triumph.

It felt like a dream.  She felt important, she felt good, and it wasn’t being poisoned or undercut in any way.

“Armsmaster has discipline,” Ashley said.  “He has more tools.”

“The rules are important,” Angel’s brother said.  “What location?  How far apart are they to start?”

“Wait, wait,” someone said.  “Who benefits from more distance?”

More replies overlapped.

She didn’t know how to deal with this.  Her power had flickered a few times, even kicked once, and people were mostly ignoring it.  There had been one question from a newcomer, and then there had been nothing.

She couldn’t bring people to her empty lair, so she had consulted J.  J had provided some ideas, and she’d picked this.  With some of the money, she had rented some hotel rooms.  It was an easy way to have comfort, food, and a bit of luxury for Angel, who needed or wanted that.  For some of these people, people in this age range who did this kind of work who hadn’t been around the other night, this was luxury, something that could draw them into her fold.

She’d tried and tried again.  Sooner or later, she’d taken a risk and it had failed.  She’d been sabotaged, by people or by her power.

Somehow… not this time.  There had been a moment where Angel’s brother had walked past her, reeking of alcohol, and her eyes had watered very easily.

Fatigue threatened to catch up with her, and she couldn’t afford to sleep.

Instead, as the discussion got sillier, she took the opportunity to stand.

“Make sure you can work tomorrow night, because we have more to do,” she said.  She smiled.  “Enjoy yourselves.  That’s an order.”

There were cheers.  She felt like she was drunk, just from the emotional reaction to the cheer.

It wasn’t a far cry from this to being worshiped.

It felt like every thing she could do was the wrong thing.  She had spent three years alone and now she finally had allies.  They were people who understood her, and as she rode the emotional high, she retreated to her room to be alone again.

She felt like she could sleep for two straight days, and sleeping terrified her, because unlike the cliche, it was a very real possibility that she could wake up and the spell would be broken.  She’d wake up from the dream.  She could move her hands the wrong way, and the dream would be broken, as surely as anything was broken by her power.

She couldn’t even trust the success.  It felt like a pressure, closing in on her, and the solitude of her room wasn’t enough.  The room was almost too much, too white, too clean, the towels too fuzzy, the sheets too soft.  All too easy to break and ruin, like so many other things in life.

She stepped outside.  There was a danger she would destroy her key card, but she could always knock on the window of the others.

Ashley hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but she couldn’t be inside.

She might have spent a full hour of that cool summer night just outside the side door of the hotel, looking at nothing in particular, far from sleep and yet too tired to think.

The door opened, and J stepped outside.

“Need anything?” he asked.

“No.”

“Want company?” he asked.

She shrugged.

He walked over, and he leaned against the wall beside her.

His arm touched hers as he stood there.  He did nothing else.

She’d been right.  He’d lied- it hadn’t been the money that had motivated him.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter