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The wind blew my hair across my gloved hand and the glowing screen of my phone. On the screen, a short email chain had me biting my tongue in reality, even though it was an exchange of text alone.
I flexed the arm that was no longer in the sling. The injury was still very much felt.
I’d been idle for too long, because the ‘circle’ dropped down from the top, obscuring part of the screen. Two options were on the circle. On the left, the phone offered the option of trying to draw power by way of ambient, wireless energy, including solar, EM, and whatever else. It would put the phone in a ‘rest’ mode. On the right, a music note and a list of my music, with the phone browsing recent messages and context to try to smart-pick a playlist of music to listen to based on my guessed mood.
The phone left both up as choices, with an upward swipe to go back to what I was doing. Each option grew and diminished as a two-segment pie chart while the phone’s thinking process brought up words and ideas- distance from home, recent browsing.
Just about every part of that whole process was about two steps shy of being hot garbage in terms of accuracy and functionality, but watching it happen and seeing the pie slice of ‘rest’ shrink was a distraction. The countdown appeared, as the phone prepared to make its choice.
I swiped in the last second. The emails.
ReSound and I are away right now. Killing toxic waste eating mutants on Bet. Wish I was joking. Not even the lousiest part of my week. If Looksee hasn’t had any contact with the files or computer in question we will look at what you have. Meet our guys on their patrol and give them a disk or something? Sound and I will review when we can or others can check it out and give us feedback. Sound good? Will call my guys and find out who you’d meet and where.
Sounds good. Looksee is busy with a project- no issues there. I’ve got a flash drive with info I can leave you guys.
Sorry to hear about the mutants. Good luck.
They’re racing down Post st. in pursuit of unpowered criminals and should pass through Westport soon coming from the east. Can’t call them but you should be able to help intercept. Notify if intercept fails or is too much trouble. Is Spright Flapper Shortcut.
Mayday had a habit of writing in big blocks of text. In the gloom, half an hour past sunset, my phone bright and everything else dark, the grid of black text was hard to read.
I squinted at the name ‘Shortcut’, my teeth still set on my tongue, biting down.
Advance Guard was tricky. Things weren’t great when it came to Lookout and her history with a few members of that group, but Shortcut was a bit of a problem too.
My hope was that Shortcut was a chronic enough problem that his dislike of me in specific and our group in general wouldn’t taint things. We needed these groups, if we were going to make this work. It just so happened that Advance Guard was both the most difficult to wrangle and the fastest when it came to responses.
On the other hand, if Mayday wanted to set us up to fail here, while maintaining plausible deniability, having us offer unasked-for help to a group that included Shortcut would be the way to do it. Just… was it worth it? What did he gain?
Advance Guard was in a bad spot, and they had to be careful. It had been a leading team and its numbers had diminished. A handful of losses and a bit hit to morale had led to a cascading effect. The team was half what it was.
Despite the later hour, traffic was stop and start below us. Headlights formed a staccato line of yellow-gold, stabbing through a haze of illuminated car exhaust and dust. Behind us, the car headlights were red, the dust and car exhaust less visible in that particular light.
No sign of the chase.
Capricorn stood on a piece of construction equipment, near one of the bottlenecks that was slowing down the flow of traffic. He was decked out in his armor, illuminated from below by the lights of the cars, but also by the background tint of a dull orange light by the motes that swirled through the air in tight spirals, out to about fifty feet to his right, fifty feet to his left, and to varying heights above him. The orange light coupled with the red of taillights for an even more exaggerated effect.
As ominous as it might be, he periodically turned his head or bent down, to better communicate with people on the ground. Eight o’clock at night and the construction workers were still suited up, some still working, though mercifully without any heavy, loud equipment or too much obstruction of traffic.
Sveta, meanwhile, sat in the light of a spotlight that had been used for construction, that was standing in lieu of some streetlights that had been knocked over. There was a platform below the light, and she was there, head both bowed and askew. Tendrils crept out of the neck portion of her costume, back to her hair, and down the front of her body and arms. She was changing the colors in one of her arms, pausing here and there to look up and make sure our Advance Guard heroes and their quarry weren’t on their way.
The work she did was very precise and particular, twenty-plus tendrils looping down her body, around her arms and then anchoring at different points on three different paintbrushes. The movements of each paintbrush were meticulous, six to ten tendrils all pulling at the same time, one relaxing to allow the others to pull it away from that direction. At the same time, a tendril worked its way around her face, gripping her eyelid, working her way into the socket.
She shook her head fiercely, and it pulled away. Others snapped out to grip the edges and bars of the platform she sat on.
Dangerous, maybe, to be doing it in the open, but she was above the cars, on a platform a distance away from the road, the people were safe within vehicles, and she was partially anchored to her body and the platform. I knew she had control enough that she’d been able to hang out with me and she hadn’t lost control to the point that she’d broken my forcefield.
I put my phone away, drifting through the sky, to find a position where it wasn’t pitch dark, but where I wasn’t breathing in car exhaust or letting the wind blow my hair into my face.
Sveta spotted me. I watched as the paintbrushes were pulled into a plastic package, still wet, and tendrils retreated into her body with remarkable speed. Her head tilted one way and then the other as she closed up her shell, locking the tendrils within. She raised a hand.
My invitation to approach.
I flew to her, one eye on the direction the criminals were supposed to be coming from. She was closing up the paint- a curated selection of paints in the same colors she had as part of her outfit, each ‘pot’ no larger than a dairy creamer.
“Can I see?” I asked.
She twisted around to show me her new paint. “Patching up scuffs, and the shading on the octopus face never looked right.”
“It looks good. I can’t give you a real verdict until we have better lighting.”
“Yeah,” she said. “All these poor people. It’s eight fifteen, and they’re still on their way home. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could make a big dinner, go car to car, and hand out chowder or something?”
“That’s the go-to? Chowder?”
“Yeah,” Sveta said, eyes widening at the thought. “Soup is just depressing. It makes you think ‘soup kitchen’. Thin, and in times like this, you know you’re getting it because there’s not much and the people serving you are trying to stretch things as far as they’ll go. But chowder? Big chunks of salmon or crab? Tons of butter and salt, then some potato, onion, celery, some dill?”
“Sticks to the stomach. Serve with some rolls. Toasted, ideally.”
“Yeah, absolutely. Fresh baked rolls. That’s part of it. It’s not enough that the quality is there. There has to be just enough in a serving that people can’t eat it all in one go. Give them that tiny bit of security for tomorrow.”
Impractical, a herculean task to put together. And it was far from being part of the ten percent of issues we were gearing up to tackle.
But this wasn’t about practicality. That wasn’t what she was imagining or spelling out.
“It makes me think of crisis points,” I said. “Head to the houses where the crimes just happened, say hi, offer to patrol the area for a bit, just to help them feel a bit safer- security. Like you said. Visit the church, talk to the people who just lost their home. Police stations, hospitals.”
“Absolutely,” Sveta’s voice was barely audible. In the distance, cars were honking. It didn’t look like it was because the villains were whizzing by. “Except nowadays, if you want to help the traumatized…”
I brought my hand up to my hair, to push it back behind my ear, before I flipped up my hood to try and give my hair some shelter. My eyes were on the road, my ears on the honking and on the slams of car doors, as people opened them and leaned out the side of their cars, trying to see what lay ahead.
“It would be nice if we could wave our hands and get all of them home,” I murmured. “Get the obstacles out of the way, dedicate some time, help with reconstruction, and make it happen. Give the ones who missed dinner because they’ve been on the road for the last two hours and there aren’t any rest-stops. But doing too much is a problem too. We do what we can.”
“I want to find the middle ground between not doing too much and not being self-indulgent.”
“That’s- self-indulgent? That’s not what I think of when I think of you,” I said.
“Except I am, aren’t I? This body paint- some like it but it’s by me, for me. The wig, it’s for me. The body, the hassle others go through for me, to help me with the little things. The trip I took with Weld, all for me, and the errands surrounding getting this body put together- he didn’t have that much time before he started with the Wardens, and it all went to me.”
“Ah, this is about Weld? Even the parts you talked about that aren’t about Weld.”
She paused, deer in the spotlight. “Yeah. Am I that obvious?”
“There were hints. For what it’s worth, I think he’s the kind of guy who gets invigorated and refreshed by helping others. He seemed pretty genuinely happy that you were where you were at, that first meeting.”
“I dunno,” Sveta said. She shrugged, shoulders squeaking slightly. “I wanted to make him something for dinner the other day, and he said no. It took me a bit before I found out it might be a bit of a chore, trying to find things he can eat. He came home so mentally worn out that he didn’t have it in him to pretend or feign interest. What else do I do for him, if you cancel that out or call it a chore? What can I do for him? It’s supposed to be a partnership.”
“It’s not an answer, but… one thing I found, that I talked to Dean with a few times, is that guys can’t always wear their hearts on their sleeves. They can’t turn to their friends and cry it out. So they bear it, carry it.”
“Dean would know that stuff, huh?”
“Some. I’m generalizing a lot. Thing is, a lot of the time, guys only have one outlet, if they have one at all. And even then, they-”
I saw lights in the distance. Advance Guard had the costumes with panels, sharp angles, illuminated sections and hyper-modern cuts. Some of the panels, it seemed, acted like reflectors, or were bright enough to make them distinct from a distance in the dark.
“There they are.”
“I see them,” Sveta said.
“We’ll talk about this later?”
“Please,” she said. “I don’t know who else to ask about some of this stuff.”
I got Capricorn’s attention with a wave, pointing. He nodded. The orange motes swirled more.
He hadn’t solidified the motes into anything. He just kept drawing, the motes remaining in the same spaces, filling in gaps between orange lines.
Flapper had her wings out – her clothes had altered, sleeves extended to great length, formed into great wings that she beat, as she swooped and dove to ride air currents. The wind was at her back, and she had the natural flier advantage of not needing to worry about following the road or terrain. Where the road curved, she could fly in a straight line. Nothing like the old-timey flapper style to her, except the short dress in the Advance Guard style.
Shortcut- I could see him on the ground, periodically obscured as he moved behind trucks and obstacles. He was fast, but it was hard for him to see where he was going. He zig-zagged, with careful movements.
And then Spright- who had both the wings out, though he wasn’t flying. His feet were on the ground, and the same stop-start zig-zag motion, if a bit freer.
I flew for the spotlight that Sveta was under. Gripping it, I twisted it around, aiming it at the incoming pursuit, keeping the worst of the light out of Shortcut and Spright’s eyes. Flapper was high enough up that she wasn’t going to be blinded.
Two trucks, what might have been postal vans or armored trucks- I wouldn’t know until I was closer. One eighteen wheeler, that lagged behind the rest. One parahuman- a man in what looked like a blurry hamster wheel. All traveled on the flat ground to the side of the road. Traffic of construction vehicles had torn up the ground already, and the passage of these vehicles kicked up geysers of mud and dust, depending on how dry or cold the ground was where they passed.
The hamster wheel was the worst of it, when it came to the collateral mess. The geysers of flung dirt would’ve painted the face of a two-story building.
“Don’t engage just yet!”
“Right!” Sveta called.
I gave the hamster wheel guy a wide berth, flying to Spright. The moment I got close to him, though, he kicked off the ground, taking flight with what looked like a combination of my flight and Flapper’s.
“Yesss!” he called out, before lunging forward with a combination of wing flaps and Glory Girl flight.
Which, inconveniently, meant I couldn’t ask him stuff. It left me two options – Shortcut and Flapper.
“Flapper!” I called out. “Mayday sent us! What’s this!?”
“Capes and getaway drivers. Living cargo in the trucks!”
“Trial and Error! Trial’s the wheel, crazy strong, but he’s tiring out! You can’t hit Error! She picks one person and they’re fucked. There’s a general fucked effect around her too!”
“There’s an aircraft runway and helicopter landing pad at Westport Stretch!” I warned.
I saw her digest that.
“Does Spright know the rules?” I asked, flying closer to her. I could feel the force of the wing flaps.
I flew in the direction of the wheel, who was leading the way now. Sveta was keeping pace, but only barely. Ahead of us, Capricorn had his motes of light, ready to form his barricade, if he had to.
Airspace meant restricted flying. Standard operating protocol for getaway drivers was to try to cut through an area where police helicopters couldn’t pursue. Once the aerial was lost, it was that much easier to disappear on the ground. Westport was large enough that it was conceivable that three trucks could disappear, if advance preparations had been taken.
“Wheel is heavy offense!” I called to Sveta, as I caught up. “One truck has a stranger! Trial and Error! Stranger in truck with fucky effect!”
She went for the trucks, leaping onto one cab roof.
“Careful!” I called out.
Traffic was mostly at a standstill, and we were racing past it, to the point it was easy to imagine we were traveling faster than we were. The air was cold, and it was filled with flecks of dirt, in the wake of those guys.
Capricorn’s wall popped into being. Crenellated, styled, with ram-headed men in stoic, stern positions at set intervals along the wall’s length. For the moment, the bottleneck on the real road was made small enough to only let small, regular cars through.
Trial was gunning for the wall now, evading Spright’s harrying fly-bys. Shortcut drew nearer, raised his weapon while skating on the grass, and then leaped- only to skip the follow-through. He ducked and rolled on the ground, got his feet under him, and resumed skidding endlessly on the ground, legs barely moving, while holding his polearm.
I gestured, as dramatically as I could, for Capricorn to get down, my arm sweeping from above my head to down and away.
He jumped off the wall at the same time Trial reached it. Trial unfolded from his wheel form, going high with the final ‘kick’ of the disassembling wheel, and his mechanism became clear- chains. Heavy chains with what looked like telekinetic control slammed into Tristan’s wall and knocked a good chunk of it down like it was a sand castle.
He was still airborne as the chains came down toward other targets. Spright evaded, as did Shortcut. The remains of the wall couldn’t. Chain snagged the remaining parts and flung them away. One chunk came toward me, with Flapper a short distance behind me. It became water in the air, and I was sprayed by what felt like a shower of ice-cold needles, breaking my forcefield in the initial spray, the follow-up pricking my exposed skin, the liquid soaking my costume.
I would have preferred the big chunk of rock.
A truck passed through the gap Trial had made. Spright harassed it. Shortcut followed behind, but without much vigor. He didn’t attack.
They were getting through. The second truck. The third had Sveta on it- she was reaching inside the cab, forcing a hard brake. It had to be the emergency brake she’d grabbed.
“Knock it over!?” Flapper called out to me. “Gently!”
I could do that, especially given the gentle slope away from the proper road with the gridlock of cars. I threw myself at the side of the truck Sveta had stopped. Wretch out. Fingers gripped corrugated metal, digging in until they found purchase in the heavier, sturdier frame.
With flight, some strength, and some attention to pushing on the end where the wheels sat on more of a slope, letting the torque of that initial motion carry through to the front of the eighteen wheeler’s container, then to the cab at the very front. Once it started moving, I flew along the side, arm out, forcefield skimming against the corrugated metal, periodically snagging or catching on it as hands that weren’t mine gripped parts of it.
But the pressure and the push that moved forward helped with using the rotation that was already there. The truck tipped. The wretch gripping metal and the fact that the metal had to tear for the truck to fall was even something of a help.
I flew up, gathered myself, and flew down, kicking at the point between the door and the frame of the vehicle. With the benefit of my forcefield, the kick served to bend metal. That door wouldn’t open easily.
Glancing at the others to make sure there was no imminent danger, I hopped down, and I used my aura to drive the point home. Through the windshield, I could see a face reacting to the aura.
Hopefully he would stay put. Breaking an intact windshield or opening a car door that was above him and damaged would be very difficult.
Flapper’s wings had transformed- each had been an exaggerated overextension of her sleeves, but now they each had middle fingers- lengths in the middle that she was using to attack in time with her wingbeats.
A combination of wind, trying to stay aloft so she could attack from above, no doubt her most effective tactic, and a slip in her technique led to her misgauging things. She missed the van and couldn’t get her wing up in time for another flap, as it slapped the ground by the moving vehicle.
I flew to her rescue, as she fell, landing hard. Her wing hit construction equipment and one car at the head of the line. I could hear her swearing.
“Careful!” Sveta called out. She’d been on a vehicle, but she was moving alongside the convoy now. She looked scuffed, her hair in disarray.
“What’s going on!?” I called out.
“That stranger effect!”
You can’t hit Error.
Shortcut hadn’t been able to hit Trial. He’d decided to hold back. Flapper had told me that the stranger effect stuck on someone, and then there was a general effect on the parahuman and their truck.
Flapper had apparently decided to test the limits of that general effect.
Capricorn had been left a bit behind, but he was active.
“Heads up!” the words were bellowed, in the top-of-the-lungs way, where it would have hurt.
And it wasn’t in Tristan’s voice. Even in a shout, I could hear the difference in the two boys.
Water shot toward the armored vans in five mirror spurts, all flying in parallel. Each jet of water became solid as Capricorn blurred, coalescing into javelins. They landed in front of one vehicle- and that vehicle rammed them. The van shuddered, rocked, and then swerved, before coming to a stop.
Leaving Spright, Shortcut, Sveta and I against Trial, Error, and the mooks from the trucks.
A push of my aura helped to spook them. They’d been grabbing what they had on hand for self defense, and they slowed for a moment.
“Boss?” one asked, nervously. “You need us? I don’t think we can fight capes.”
“Stay by the truck. We can handle this,” Trial said. He said it with near-complete confidence, too. If there was a waver or a pause a tenth of a second longer, it was because of my aura.
Only fear, these days, with exceptions for someone like Kenzie.
Trial had armor in overlapping plates that were each connected by chains, and more chains wrapped around him. His mask was the best part of it, with a shaped metal mask that contoured to the angles of his face, and two ‘laurel’ horns, and the mask was only a B-.
Error had a costume with red ‘x’ icons across it, in a motif that recurred like spikes did on a punk rocker. She wore a medical mask with a red ‘x’ on it, and a flat-top hat with the same above the bill, and I could see a white outline where it had been cut imprecisely from whatever the source material was. The non-red parts of the costume mixed khaki green and black. Nothing about it was even B-.
Error. She made people fuck up. Right.
It was such a bad name, it gave so much away and it barely worked as a cape name. It was such an offensive costume from a design standpoint… Trial, unless I was missing something in the background of the name, didn’t even make sense given the guy’s power, it was a shitty gimmick…
“Didn’t ask for help,” Shortcut said.
I was already irritated, digesting who we were up against, and he had to go and say that.
“I had something to hand over, you guys can watch it or pass it to Mayday. If you want, we can leave.”
“Leave,” Shortcut said.
“Don’t leave!” Spright said. “Please. Shortcut, ease-”
Trial lashed out with chains.
I flew to intercept.
“No!” Shortcut bellowed.
I felt the pressure wash over me before I even got to the chain. If my response to Shortcut saying something might’ve been mixed, given our past history, the sensation helped tip me to the one side of the scale. I changed course in mid-air, flying straight to the ground.
The chain flew over my head. It came perilously close to Spright and Shortcut, but both were nimble, using Shortcut’s power. They dodged.
Sveta, as quick as her hands were, wasn’t able to reach out and grab something, and also haul herself away, before the chain could connect. The chain clipped her. I heard the impact.
“Error’s specific,” Shortcut said, like Sveta hadn’t just taken a hit. “She turns your attacks-”
I flew to Sveta’s side.
“Against you. Including deflections.”
I saw the chains move. I tensed, ready to fly up there, to beat the incoming attack back, collateral be damned.
What happened, then, if I deflected? The chains went in the worst possible direction for our side? Did I miss and hit the wrong part?
“Don’t,” Shortcut said. “Trial. Don’t.”
Spright added, “You lost your cargo, she’s giving medical attention, the other one needs it. You don’t fuck with that.”
“Nobody cares about that anymore,” Error said.
Sveta’s chest was broken. Tendrils were creeping out.
“You alright?” I murmured.
“Rattled. Broken. I have stuff, but I can’t move my arms.”
In another situation, where the rules were in place, Sveta might be fine like this. She could lie dormant and wait for help, or ask for the coast to be cleared.
It was always the problem, lingering in the background.
She looked tense.
“Can I?” I asked. At the nod, I reached for the small of her back, where her clothes covered her kits. I saw some smaller tendrils reach out for my hand and stop short.
Her tendrils were growing over time. She grew new ones. Right now she was keeping the longest at bay, because they were a danger to others, not just to me.
“This is taking concentration,” Sveta said.
I grabbed the kit, hauling it free with a tug that would have been violent if Sveta’s body were flesh.
This situation was requiring me to split my own concentration. I was trying to ignore Trial and his chains, and the fact that Error had her hand hovering near her belt. The bars at the side- batons?
“Let us go,” Trial said. He had an accent like someone from the midwest. “We take our trucks, we drive away, and you stay.”
“I can’t see myself agreeing to that,” Shortcut said.
“I’ll attack those girls,” Trial said. “And I’ll attack that line of cars. Error’s rule means that no matter what you do, it’s going to be messy. The heroes can’t afford it.”
“If you attack us, the only mess will be the stains your bodies leave behind,” I growled.
“We’re willing to take that risk,” Trial said. “But only if we have to. You can afford to let us go. It’s pigs, chickens, and cum.”
“Valuable, needed pigs and chickens,” Spright said. “The equipment and refrigerated material for breeding stock. Forty pigs at a thousand a head, plus the other stuff, forty-two thousand on the one truck, easy.”
I pushed the seal over the armor- the damage was enough that one patch didn’t cover it all. Tendrils reached around and touched my hand. I pulled away.
“Pigs, chicken, and jizz… or their lives. And their lives?” Trial asked. The tip of the chain turned in the air to point for him. At me and Sveta, then the cars.
I didn’t want to be a bargaining chip. I gripped Sveta by the shoulders.
I had to wait. Wait until I could be sure Error wouldn’t focus on me, use her power, and potentially turn my attempt at an evacuation into a horrible disaster.
A tendril wrapped itself around my hand. It squeezed, and it squeezed against my forcefield. The forcefield didn’t break, but I was aware of the strain. Fuck me- I was too close to Sveta, I could see the whites of her eyes. She was too close to me. I’d destroyed door handles on cars and pavement like this, and she was this close.
I canceled my forcefield, and something in the micron of slack that resulted saw the tendril fail to cinch tighter, then unwind. It twisted and kinked in the air before retreating into the crack. I pressed down another patch.
Sveta had her eyes closed.
Capricorn was approaching. I saw a mote pass me, and I shook my head. Error saw, turning to Capricorn. He froze.
Spright looked at me. I raised my hand, indicated with a thumb jab. That got me a nod.
I seized Sveta and dragged her away.
Trial twisted around, chains raising up around him. Four at each side, each as big around as his arms were, tipped with a spiked ball as large as his head.
Error, meanwhile, had her hands out to her sides, one in front, one to her left. A mime pressing against two walls of her invisible box. Except it wasn’t- she was broadcasting, or maintaining a signal.
Trial went on the offensive. chains whirled at one side, rotating in a circle with enough force to strike the ground and cast him forward. Spright slid on the ground, ran to chase-
“Go,” Sveta said.
I charged in.
Spright manifested his own chains. He started to swing them around- and then stopped. Chains shattered, each individual link breaking. He turned to look at Error.
Too dangerous to use when under her influence?
I had to unravel this- figure it out. While her back was to me, I could go after her. Wretch out- one move to take her out of the fight. Given what we were up against, I wasn’t sure we’d get a second shot.
A swing for the legs, like I’d done when hitting concrete.
I felt the effect as I got within a few feet. I felt it intensify as I swung-
I saw other movement in the corner of my eye. Shortcut closing in. The effect was like grabbing soap, only for it to slip free of one’s hands. The swing was too soon, the angle and arc, and Shortcut’s timing of super-quick approach put him squarely in the way.
I canceled out my power. I swung only a fist, and my fist turned up, so I struck him with a lighter blow using the heel of my hand instead. I hit him in the shoulder, strength unaugmented.
He shoved me away. He swung his polearm, missed, and the butt end of the thing came perilously close to me. If I hadn’t been flying back and away, it would have hit me.
Was it because it didn’t hit me that it succeeded in scratching her? Or was the power itself no guarantee?
More concerning was the chain guy. Trial. I flew back, out of shortcut’s reach, and I tried to find an opening.
The chains were defensive- they slapped at Byron’s water, they blocked Spright. They were offensive– small wrecking balls with whip-crack power behind them. They were mobility. Whirling them in one hand like a wheel or whipping them around him like a fucking skip rope -I hated these guys- moved him at high speeds, with good maneuverability.
Error might need to concentrate. She seemed to focus on looking at people.
Identify the cracks, then strike. So long as it was reasoned out and so long as it didn’t escalate…
I hit the ground, scooping up as much as the Wretch could get, and sending a cascade of dirt and clumps of earth at Error and into the air. In the process, I hit Shortcut, because of course I did. But as much as it blinded and debilitated him, it also served to blind and limit her. I flew in closer, aura on, and I didn’t feel the pressure of that power settling in around me, warping space or altering my tactile and visual senses, or whatever it did.
Sveta’s hand grabbed me. I turned to look- and I saw that the dust was thick enough in the air that she couldn’t tell us apart, a fact that wasn’t helped by darkness and dirt.
I did the natural thing to communicate to her without tipping off Error. I gave the hand a waggle.
Then I grabbed it and I threw it out in Error’s direction.
With how this power seemed to work, it might get Shortcut instead. That would win us points.
But Shortcut, blinded, had backed off. Sveta’s hand dragged Error to her, and though her other arm was still disabled, she wrapped her legs around Error’s neck and shoulders.
That left Trial- and Trial was winning. Capricorn had sealed chains down by creating water and turning that water to stone, but with a simple tug, the chains came free, stone flecks flying. Shortcut was fended off, and Spright was maneuverability, not offense.
And, it seemed, even with where we were at, Error could use her power. Spright came dangerously close to impaling himself on Shortcut’s halberd.
On the ground ten feet from me were Capricorn’s javelins. As I approached them, people backed away.
“Cover her eyes!” I called out to Sveta. At those words, Trial looked and he seemed to realize the position and the numbers.
He lunged for the street, where cars still choked the road. Chains went up, and I turned on the Wretch, reaching for javelins that weren’t in my reach.
“No!” Shortcut shouted. “Stop.”
There was a pause, as if nobody was entirely sure he was referring to them, nobody wanted to stop if the others were still going. At this stage, people on the other side could be maimed or killed if the dynamic shifted.
“Pause,” Spright said.
The lighter word seemed to have more impact than the shout and the firmer ‘stop’.
“Stop,” Shortcut said. “You really want to go this far?”
“As far as we have to,” Trial said.
“Then go. Take your semen. Take your swine. Take your cocks. You’re in good company.”
I wanted to facepalm at the lame line, but Shortcut was on our side.
And frankly, I couldn’t fault him for calling it here.
It wasn’t worth.
“Hens actually,” Trial said. “Let my friend go.”
“We’re giving you a head start, but this definitely isn’t over,” Shortcut said. He gestured at Sveta.
Error climbed to her feet.
“This way,” Trial said. He gestured at the trucks. He was careful to remain within a chain’s length of the road, doing so with Error at his side. “There should be one more truck.”
“Tipped over,” I said.
He shook his head. “Tip it back over.”
“Driver was unconscious, last I saw,” I lied. “You can send someone if you want. Maybe Error can drive.”
“It’s not worth,” Error said.
I watched as Trial considered his options.
He indicated for the trucks to go, with one pausing by him to let Error on. The chains started up, and they were gone.
“We’ll tail,” Shortcut said. He looked at me. “You…”
“We can cooperate on this.”
“We could,” he said. “No. Spright, tell Flapper to handle this mess, talk to the unconscious one when they wake up. Catch up with me after.”
Then he was gone.
“Dick,” Capricorn muttered under his breath.
“Yeah. No way that was going to end well,” Spright said. “Heavy hitter paired with that kind of stranger power. We’ll take our lumps. This loss is Advance Guard’s fault, provided you don’t ask Shortcut to assign blame. Always good to see you.”
“Spright-” I said, interrupting before he could go.
“Two things. Mayday wanted me to pass this on. It’s a proposal for information sharing, networking. Dividing up the ten percent of threats that really need cape attention, swapping out. Take a look?”
He took the flash drive. He considered for a moment, the nodded. He floated a foot above the ground, borrowing my power. Just the movement aspect.
“Second thing is… I’m not okay with leaving it like this.”
“Me either, but sometimes we need to eat our losses.”
“I don’t like losing,” Capricorn said.
“What do you say I gather reinforcements and we do this again, try to corner them? This time with no civilians nearby.”
“If you want to try, I’m not going to complain. You have my number. It won’t make Shortstuff happy, but…”
“Rare thing?” Capricorn asked.
“Sure. Do me a favor and brief Flappy?”
“Okay,” Capricorn said.
Then Spright was gone, flying away using my power.
“I’ll call and check on Sveta,” I said. “You handle that side? See what the driver of the big truck says?”
“Yeah,” was the reply. Capricorn jogged off.
I had my phone out a moment later. The automated process for idling had selected one of the songs I’d downloaded for Gilpatrick during one of the Patrol’s visits to a school. Gun rules as a song for grade schoolers.
Because of course it had.
Tristan was gone. Sveta was sitting up, rubbing at the shoulder that wasn’t working, near where the damage was, and the cars were moving down the road, barely visible past the cover of construction.
At least chances were slim that some of the Error-induced disasters hadn’t been caught on camera. I could imagine that would go over well.
With the phone pressed to my ear, I walked over to the javelins, which were almost lost in the dirt that had been turned over by the passage of the vans and slashes of the chain whip.
I released the Wretch, and I reached out with my free hand, the bicep twinging from the gunshot wound that hadn’t fully healed.
Come on. Come on. Come on.
If it had mattered, would I have been able to?
The Wretch grabbed the first javelin, then the next, and then a third. One broke in two- a bite, not a hand.
The other two, the Wretch simply held. I waited, then I moved my hand. There was no way to tell if it would work or not, because they broke to pieces as the grip tightened or changed.
I bent down and looked in the direction Capricorn had gone, and I reached down to one of the chunks of stone.
It crumbled in my grip. No power in effect.
We’ll work this out, I told the Wretch.
I straightened. Sveta reached me, having walked over. Her metal shoulder bumped my spiked one. Solidarity.
The phone was answered. There was squabbling. Boy and girl.
“She hasn’t gone home?”
“No family dinner to get back to. She’s fiddling. Her person’s here, the guy Natalie knows.”
“I’ll have a talk with her in the morning,” I said. Talks were overdue.
“You call for something? I hope you called for something. I was asleep and you woke me up. The thing go okay?”
“Atrociously, actually,” I said. “But it’s not over, as far as I’m concerned. I need you to call people.”
I could hear his groan. I could also hear Kenzie in the background, volunteering her help.
“Or give me the numbers. I’ll call.”
“It’s fine. I’ll do some. Which people?”
“Everyone underlined in green. It’s not an emergency, but if they’ll do us this favor and help out, we’ll pay them back, or I will.”
There was a pause.
“If I didn’t spontaneously swap rods and cones in my eyes, that’s… a lot of people.”
They were the ones I didn’t think would take too much convincing, ones we’d worked with or had contact with.
Capricorn was back. There hadn’t been delay in getting the info. His arms were folded as he stared at me, and orange motes danced to either side of his head, forming shapes. Like branches.
Prancer. His last hurrah, or his new and improved way of doing business. It couldn’t be easy- not someone we were already gunning for. It only reaffirmed my conviction here.
“Yeah,” I said, setting my jaw, glancing at my two teammates. “A lot of people. The villains might not want to stick by the rules of the cops and robbers game, but I want to keep the penalties.”
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