Beacon – Interlude 8.x

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

After the stifling atmosphere of the television studio, the night air felt cool, too clean and refreshing.  In the background and across the water, the city was going dark.  There was still only so much power to go around.

She was glad for the puffer jacket she’d bought with the bonus from her last payday.  In a way, she’d needed to push herself to start thinking about the cold weather and what it meant.  Her hands and face were cold, now, but her body was warm, and that helped the rest of her.  It meant she could stay outside in the cold and the quiet.

Her breath made her glasses fog up, the lenses catching the small amounts of orange light from the nearby streetlight, illuminating her entire visible world with orange light, which would fade as the condensation receded.  She could avoid it by directing her breath to one side, or controlling the output, but as soon as she turned her thoughts to something, she would forget and her glasses would fog up again with that alarming amber glow.  Tonight had been important- more important than she’d anticipated.

She’d heard the discussions, the insinuations.  She’d been asked once or twice to chime in with her opinion on things.  She had been the escort for Kenzie to go to the television studio, and she’d waited in the darkness of the wings as the show started.

Even up to that moment, she hadn’t expected the gravity of it.

If she was anything more than an idle smoker, she would be puffing away right now.  If she were a drinker, she would be tipping something back.  Maybe, anyway- she still had work to do.  The right-now wasn’t so important.  It was that if she were anyone else, anything else, she would be able to do more than stand in the dark, her hands in her pockets, fogging up her glasses with her eyes wide.

It wasn’t that she didn’t know what to do with herself, exactly.  She knew.  If she were asked, she could have spouted off a checklist of things, ordered them by priority, and given the go-ahead, she would do it.

It was the herself, the she.  It was the notion that she liked capes.  They were neat and she’d always been enchanted by the notion of them.  She’d told herself that she had no major illusions when it came to what capes were.  They were human but they were humans with a lot of power.  That could be a very bad thing and it could be a terrific thing.  It depended on the person.  She’d told herself they were flawed.  Even when Mrs. Dallon took the gloves off and made it look like she was a superhuman lawyer, not just a superhuman in costume, Natalie had kept her perspective in check, or so she liked to think.  Mrs. Dallon was a person to look up to, one with a lot of talents, but she was a person.

Those were things she could watch out for.  The awe, the hate, the seeming perfection, the perspective or lack thereof.  Early work, past classes, upbringing, everything in her life up to this point had primed her to watch those things.  She could point to just about any bad incident in her upbringing or past and think of the big lesson she’d taken to heart.

This… she’d always thought capes were cool. It felt like just yesterday that she’d been Kenzie’s age, utterly enchanted by the idea of getting powers and doing something.  That moment when she saved people.  The moment when the villain was about to win.  The moment when bystanders depended on her, or clapped for her because she’d won.  She’d been enchanted by the magical powers of one book, the biological alteration scenario of a television series.   When she reflected on the fantasies of childhood and adulthood both, it was the moments that stuck with her.  Endless replays in her head of a given monumental scene, the crux of a decision.

Not even all good moments, either.  Just moments, the key scenes.  When she’d wanted to be a lawyer, it had been with a mind to having those moments in the courtroom.  When she’d started working with the capes, a part of it was that she’d wanted to be adjacent to those moments.

Tonight had had a few of them.  She’d been adjacent.

Except they weren’t any moments.  Time didn’t stop, and there was no room to think about each decision.  Events came, they went, things moved on, people adapted, conversations led to them and from them.

Standing here in the cold, glasses so fogged up and amber-tinted she couldn’t even see through them, she wondered if she was trying to stand in that current and find or create a moment.

But it couldn’t be manufactured.  There was no moment here, only a checklist of things to do, each thing with its own priority.

Best not to leave Kenzie alone too long, either.  She cleaned her glasses of condensation while walking from her car to the building.

Her hands remained in her pockets even though the steps of the fire escape were narrow.  She knocked, and it was Victoria who opened the door.

“You don’t need to knock,” Victoria said.

“I’m thinking I should take Kenzie home.”

“Okay.”

“Let me get my stuff,” Kenzie said.  “I want to take stuff home to work on.”

“Go easy,” Victoria said.  “Don’t work on your things too late, or spend too much time watching feeds.”

“Okay, I can take stuff to work on in the morning though, right?”

“Not too much,” Natalie said.  “Whatever you can take in one trip.  We’re all tired and we don’t want to be going back and forth from the car to unload.”

“Okay.  One trip, hmm.”

“I’ll take one bag,” Natalie said.

“Thank you,” Kenzie replied, almost sing-song, already gathering her things.

Rain and Ashley were offline and gone.  Byron was packing up.  Sveta was with Victoria, and Chris- sometimes Natalie had to look twice to spot him.  He was sitting in a different corner than his usual.

“Do you want a ride, Chris?” Natalie asked.

“No thanks, I live close.”

“Byron?”

“I’m close too, but thanks.”

“I live in the other direction,” Sveta said, “I’m going to hang with Victoria for a bit.”

“Okay,” Natalie said.

“Thank you for coming tonight,” Victoria told Natalie.  She looked down, Natalie observed.  Like it was a week after her cat had died, and she had just reached the point where she could hold it together.

Eight arms?  Three heads?

She had questions and she couldn’t ask.  Others had questions and they wouldn’t ask.  It felt almost like a moment and it was gone by the time she’d recognized it.

“Take care, Nat,” Byron said, in passing.  The air felt colder in his wake.

“You too,” she told him.  She stepped out of the way so he could leave.

Kenzie hurried over to her, a bag in hand.  “Laptop and cords.”

“Got it,” Natalie said, taking the bag.

Then Kenzie was gone, back to her desk, sorting through lenses and components.  Some of Rain’s things, maybe?  Natalie tried to keep track of them so she could be a better guardian, but she wasn’t sure if she could really demand that of herself.  There were tables and corners of tables where it looked like a television, radio, and a few flashlights had been dismantled and broken down into their constituent elements.  Kenzie’s work areas were sorted by color, with a collection of bits of glass, bulbs, and lenses.

Rain’s work areas that hadn’t been cleaned up were in piles, crowded in by the wolf trap, chains, and knives Rain had brought in.  There might have been an emphasis on the sharp-edged, ragged breaks where plastic or metal had snapped off.

“Victoria,” Natalie said, pulling her eyes away from those ragged edges.  “How are things?”

“Do you mean overall or with me, specifically?” Victoria asked.

She’d meant Victoria, specifically.  “Both, I guess.”

Victoria’s gaze was heavy, searching.

When Victoria did answer, she said, “Same answer for both.  It’s going to sting at first.  We anticipated that.  But we’re already seeing the hero teams responding, and it’s the reception we wanted.  It’s gratifying.  My parent’s team, Mayday sounds like a yes.  Shorewatch is a yes.  Auzure is yes.”

“Some civilian responses too,” Sveta said.  “People without powers, supporting our side.”

“I don’t really get it,” Natalie said.  The show didn’t seem to go that well.

“It’s what we expected, with a couple of unwanted surprises along the way, obviously,” Victoria answered, checking her laptop, then stretching a bit as she turned away from it.  “I’d hoped for a bit of a healthier balance of positivity to negativity.”

“It’s only one good message for every twelve bad, I think, but the number should improve as the night goes on,” Sveta injected a note of hope into her voice.

“It might, and only up to a point,” Chris said.  “The bad is going to keep outnumbering the good.”

“Thank you, Chris,” Sveta was a bit sarcastic.

Victoria seemed to mostly ignore them, fixing her attention on Natalie, “this is what we wanted.”

Was it?  How?

But Natalie didn’t miss those fleeting moments, when Victoria was mid-stretch or talking about how this was expected or wanted, when she looked a lot like Carol had a few times back at the Wardens’ office.  Not happy, far from happy in this case, but fully confident.

“Yeah,” Sveta said.

“I hope it keeps that course then,” Natalie said.  The words felt hollow when she still wasn’t sure about it all.

Victoria smiled.  She turned to Kenzie, who had stopped bustling and rummaging and now stood still.  “Are you ready?”

“Got my stuff,” Kenzie said.  She had a very full cloth shopping bag full of junk, slung over one shoulder.  She’d grabbed a bag of snacks.

“Alright,” Natalie said.  She put a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder, guiding her to the door.  “Good night, Breakthrough.”

Victoria smiled in response, while it was Sveta’s turn to look wearier as she smiled as well.

Because Natalie had addressed them as ‘Breakthrough’?

Emboldened, Natalie added, “Keep me on speed dial, in case there are issues.  After shows with that ideological a bent, people sue, threaten, or otherwise use lawyers to try to bully or influence the narrative.  Cries for censorship, cries against.  Don’t respond and don’t panic.  Call me and let me call the people who can handle it.”

“Got it,” Victoria answered her, all tired seriousness.  “You have Gil’s number?”

“Gil?  Oh, Gilpatrick?  Yes.”

“Drive safe.  I’ll be patrolling, burning off restless energy, starting when the messages start slowing down.”

“Next month then?” Chris asked.

“Go home, Chris,” Victoria said.  “We’re done for the day, and you’ll be missed if you’re out too late.”

“Mmf.”

Natalie turned away from everything, stepping back outside.

All of the tech stuff went into the back seat of Natalie’s beetle, seats folded forward to provide access.  Nowhere near as much space as Tristan’s truck, which she had driven earlier.  Feeling how cold the car was as she leaned into the back to set the bag down, Natalie was sure to grab a blanket while she was in the back seat.

“I like your car,” Kenzie said, settling into the passenger seat.  She looked surprised as Natalie draped the blanket over her lap.  “Thank you.”

“Heat and fan struggle if I need to accelerate a lot while going up any hills,” Natalie explained.  “Let’s get you cozy.”

“I still like it, struggle or not.  Ooh, I wonder if I could soup it up somehow.  I wonder how I’d do it.”

“Ask before you do anything, please,” Natalie said, as she got belted in.  The steering wheel was cool, but not so much that it would be bothersome over the long term.

She drove.  The amber of the streetlights swept into the car, followed by a sweep of darkness, lingering just a fraction of a second too long, before the next sweep of amber.  It was as though the city had adjusted the spacing to save on resources, and so it was somehow less than what she’d grown up getting used to.

At least the roads were more or less clear.

Another her would have made tonight the sort of night she would have sped down the highway, letting her foot rest more heavily on the gas, letting herself experience the thrill.

She drove the speed limit, sticking to the right-hand lane, only moving to allow ample space for mergers.  Hers was the car that other people zipped by.

In the other seat, Kenzie leaned her head against the window, staring not at what was beyond, but at the hypnotic play of light against the glass just in front of her eyes.  Light from the dash, light from the city beyond.

No happy smiles, no bubbling vivaciousness, no excitement.

“Are you okay?” Natalie asked.

“Yes.  I’m super,” Kenzie replied, her head not moving.

“You sure?  You don’t sound super- it’s allowed to not feel super.”

“I mean it,” Kenzie said.  The amber light of streetlights swept into the car’s interior.  A chance trick of light played off of her eyes, making the natural moisture appear to be glowing yellow-orange.  Light passed over the little girl’s face, and there was a line below her eye where it looked like her face was a thick mask, a hole had been cut in, and the glow of the streetlights came from within the mask, not outside.

Kenzie turned her face away, pulling the blanket up so it covered her shoulders, and gripped it from within to tug it close to her body.  “I feel more okay than I have since Ashley and Rain turned themselves in to go to jail.”

“Why?  Because-”

“Because my friends had my back.  I got to spend the day with my favorite person.  Did you see the emails?  People are cheering for us- for me.”

“It’s good you’re happy.  I don’t want to take away from that, but-”

“But some people are being awful?  Hateful?  Scared?  All my life, people have been that way.  For a long, long, looong while, everyone was like that,” Kenzie said.  “If five million people watched that, and one in thirteen people that care enough to say something about it are saying something nice?  That’s a times-infinity improvement.  And Breakthrough had my back.”

“Got it,” Natalie said.

“Infinity times six,” Kenzie said, sounding almost like she was falling asleep.  It was nine o’clock at night, so she wouldn’t have been faulted, but Natalie knew she usually stayed up well past that point.

A long day, in other ways.

“Infinity plus five, maybe.  Chris sucks sometimes, and he didn’t really help.  But then there’s you and you’re part of Breakthrough, and you have my back?”

“Yes,” Natalie said.  “I don’t know if I’m part of it, but I will have your back.  Best I can.”

“And it’s not just because you’re getting paid?”

“No.”

“Or because you get to see more of Tony?”

“No idea what you’re talking about.”

“It’s Thursday tonight.  He’s staying over.  He’s your boyfriend, isn’t he?”

“He definitely isn’t,” Natalie said.  “And don’t- don’t try playing matchmaker.”

Oh please God, don’t try playing matchmaker.

“No promises.  My current score is infinity and six.  I think that’s pretty amazing. Who wouldn’t be psyched to have someone with that good a record giving them some help?”

“I-”

“Right?”

“No, not right.  Kenzie, it’s complicated.  I like things the way they are now.”

“But he’s not your boyfriend.”

“Not exactly.”

“And you want him to be your boyfriend.”

“Yes, but.  It’s weird and it’s fragile and I don’t want to ruin a good thing by trying to shoot for a maybe-great thing.”

“I like that.  It’s a good way of putting it.”

“Thank you,” Natalie said.  The drive remained quiet, the lights sweeping through the car, the traffic denser closer to the broken portal in Norwalk, but still manageable and polite.  All the same, her heart was pounding.

“I’m mostly teasing, by the way,” Kenzie said.  “I know I’d be the worst relationship doctor.”

“Please don’t tease me, Kenzie,” Natalie answered, gripping the steering wheel, her heart still racing.  “Today has been stressful enough, and we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”

“We’re okay,” Kenzie said.  “This is all according to plan.”

“You think so?”

Kenzie nodded, serious, before hugging the blanket tighter to her body again.  The car wasn’t even that cold anymore.  The girl’s expression was solemn.

“You’re really okay?  You’re happy with this outcome?”

“I told you!” Kenzie raised her voice, blanket falling from her shoulders to fold across her lap.  She was indignant, adding, “I said!

“Okay, okay!” Natalie replied.

The trip continued, with idle chatter, and no mention of Tony, thankfully.

Kenzie’s neighborhood was dark, her home illuminated by flashlights, lanterns, and candles, by the look of it.

“No power, ugh,” Kenzie said.  “I won’t be able to build tonight, or check on things.”

“That’s not a complete tragedy.  You might get a full night’s sleep,” Natalie said.

They let themselves in.

“Hi Tony!” Kenzie called out.

“Hi!” the call came back.  “Did you eat?”

“A while ago.  Do you have snacks?”

“I’ll put something together.  Get yourself ready for bed, okay?”

“Is Dave still around?”

“He left a while ago.  The game you guys were playing is still where you left it.  Your move, apparently.”

Kenzie carefully put her bag down, kicked off her shoes, and bounce-skipped to the living room.  Natalie took her time getting her jacket off, boots off, and putting away Kenzie’s shoes.  She was relieved in a way to see Kenzie being a bit messy and normal.

When she looked up, Tony was there, at the door to the living room.  Natalie felt a bit of trepidation as she joined him.  Seeing what Kenzie was up to meant standing right beside Tony.

He was intimidating.  Doubly so by candlelight.  He was growing out his red hair, and it was long enough that locks curled around the tops and to the backs of his ears.  His red hair and beard looked amazing in the warm light, and the play of light and shadow made the shape of his face, his neck and his adam’s apple very noticeable.  He wore a long-sleeved t-shirt, what might have been silk pyjama bottoms, and slippers.

Approaching to stand closer meant she wouldn’t stare at him, but now she could smell his body soap, shampoo, and whatever else it was he used.  He’d just showered recently.

“Laser chess,” Tony said, by way of explanation.  The corner of his t-shirt sleeve at his bicep brushed her shoulder as he raised a hand to point.

“Kenzie mentioned it on one of our car trips,” Natalie replied.  “Hard to visualize, hearing about it.”

Kenzie moved a piece, then hit a button.  A visible laser reflected across the various pieces, leaving the board to stab toward the easel where Kenzie’s mother had once had her paintings.

“Move decided?” Tony asked.

That got a nod.

“Good.  Get ready for bed,” Tony said.  “I’ll get your snack.”

Kenzie ran off to do just that.  Tony and Natalie didn’t move from their positions, looking into the now-unoccupied living room.

“You’re better at the kid-handling than I am,” Natalie said.

“I raised my littlest brother.  You’ve crossed paths with him.  When you were at my apartment?”

“Oh.  Yeah.  I thought that was your roommate.”

Tony shook his head, but the way he shook it- not just because she was wrong.

“Today was kind of a holy shit day,” Tony said.

“You watched the show?”

“Everyone did.  The five of us were in group chat discussing.  You didn’t look in?”

Natalie shook her head.

“I don’t blame you.  You probably had your hands full.”

“I wish.  I would have liked to be able to do more.  I just… tried to keep an eye on Kenzie, give feedback.”

“That’s important,” Tony said.  “Do you want a snack too?  I’ve got blueberry muffins.”

“Sure.  Please,” she said.  “I’m going to go get changed, I’ll grab it when I come back downstairs.”

“I’ll warm it up,” he said.  “Coffee?  Tea?”

“Coffee.  I have work I should do,” she said.  She didn’t leave right away.  “I was wondering-”

“Yes?”

“The reception.  What did the group think?  What did you think?”

“Of the show?  I think a lot is going to depend on what others say.  Some pretty freaky, wild stuff.  The powers and the…”

“Alien?”

“The lies,” he said.  “The Triumvirate lied?  Legend, Alexandria, Eidolon?  The secrets being kept?  I mean, we knew there were secrets, but this is something else.”

“Yeah.  Were the others upset?”

“Not upset.  Wondering.  Processing.  Why?  Is there backlash already?”

She nodded, eyes widening for emphasis.

“Are you okay?  Are they okay?”

“I’m fine.  A bit shell-shocked.  Kenzie’s… as happy as I’ve seen her.  The others… it’s not my place to say.”

“We’re on their side.  Nobody’s leaving Kenzie’s rotation here or changing how we do it.”

She felt her forehead crease as she thought on that.

“Go get changed.  I’ll warm up your snacks.  We’ll get her put to bed like responsible caregivers, and then we’ll talk.  Or you can do your work and we can… you want to hook up Saturday or Sunday?  Or both?”

Both, was her immediate thought.  She did her best to switch to unflappable lawyer mode, like Carol so often did.  “Saturday?  My apartment?  We’ll figure out if Sunday works from there.  We can chat then.”

“When not otherwise occupied,” he said.

Aaaaa, she thought.

“Perfect,” she said.

He smiled, “I’ll look forward to it.”

Aaaaa, she thought, again.  She wasn’t sure she trusted her legs not to go out on her if she tried to walk away, but she knew she’d look like an idiot if she stayed.

She headed up the stairs without wobbly knees failing her, grabbing one of the electric lanterns from a stair on the way up, and headed to the room that she shared with one of the other girls- a daughter of one of the family law administrators.  Their schedules overlapped by the one day, at the tail end of Natalie’s shift, but they’d only crossed paths with a couple of seconds of contact shared with them each time.  As a result, Natalie only knew the girl by the things left in the one corner of the room she’d claimed.  Natalie had her own corner, with clothes, toiletries, books, and some of her computer stuff.

She had two sets of sleep-clothes, which included a flannel two-piece set with a buttoned top with a collar, and then the nightie she’d bought but never worn.  Modest enough to wear around Kenzie without feeling weird, but… Tony would like it, if he liked anything she wore.

She agonized over the choice, and she wished she had some sense of what was right, or appropriate, or good.  She second guessed herself, then second guessed herself again.

Natalie picked a piece of lint off of the flannel as she emerged from her room.  Kenzie was just down the hall, leaning over the counter, brushing her teeth.  The girl wore a silver silk nightdress with a silk headscarf wrapped around her hair, the hairpin she’d been wearing earlier in the day helping to keep it in place.

Natalie waited until Kenzie was done.

“You do have to take that hairpin off at some point.”

“I know.  I’ll take it off before I go to sleep.  Is Tony sleeping upstairs?”

“I don’t think he is.  He usually takes the couch downstairs.  Why?”

“I was just thinking, if you wanted to share the same room, you should.  I wouldn’t mind.”

“N- no, Kenzie.  That would be weird.”

“But you guys do that when I’m not in the way or around, I’m pretty sure, and so I don’t want to hurt that by being in the way or being around.  He’s great and you’re great, and you’d be great together.  If it’s because you’re worried I’d watch you on camera, I wouldn’t.  I took cameras out of the bedrooms and turned them away from places people sleep because I like you guys and trust you.

Apparently there had been no need to dance around the subject of her physical-only or physical-mostly relationship with Tony in the car ride here.

Also, cameras?

“No.”

“Because I’m not really paying attention to that stuff and I could do much less creepy research online if I was, that didn’t involve anyone I knew.  I think if really wanted to figure it out, I’d start with studying videos of kissing I’d do that and work my way up, so I’m good at the general stuff before I get to the advanced-”

“Kenzie.”

Kenzie stopped.

“There are blueberry muffins downstairs.”

“Yes!”

Kenzie practically flew down the stairs.

A heavy crash downstairs made Natalie freeze.

It was a moment, not a fleeting one, not a missed one, or the sort that hit so hard it rippled, making the decisions that were to come after that much more difficult.  It was the kind that she’d thought about as a kid.

There were voices below.  Multiple male ones.  Another crash.

“Kenzie!” she hissed the word.

Kenzie was already coming up the stairs on all fours.

The moment Kenzie was confirmed upstairs and safe, Natalie ducked into her room.  Phone.

She had numbers.  Police.  She texted rather than call.  If she had to call, if there had to be a back and forth, it would take too long.

Glass shattered downstairs.

Victoria’s contact, Gilpatrick.  A repeat of the prior message.

She was in the middle of typing a message to Victoria when she heard footsteps on the stairs, with voices, a back and forth between a guy and a girl.  Kenzie tried to put herself between the stairs and Natalie, but Natalie pushed her back.

“I’m the hero here,” Kenzie said, insistent, dead serious.  “Let me protect you.”

“Do you have your gear up here?”

Kenzie shook her head.  “Some in the bag in the hallway, but that’s mostly scrap.  I didn’t bring the eyehook or any of the really useful stuff because you said you didn’t want to make too many trips.

The pair came up the stairs.  A twenty-something guy and a teenage girl with bleached hair.  The guy had a knife.

Natalie had seen knife wounds, once.  It was so, so easy to do horrendous amounts of damage.

“Can I have your phone?” Kenzie asked.

“No,” the guy said.  “Don’t be stupid.”

Natalie looked down at her phone in her left hand.  The screen had a large red ‘connect’ icon with a slash through it.

No service?

No power in the building, no service.  If service had dropped like this, the texts might not have gone through.

“Drop it.”

Natalie bent down, letting the phone fall the remaining distance.  She winced, hearing the sound.  Phones were too expensive.

As the guy moved, knife in hand, she put herself between him and Kenzie.

“Kid,” the guy said.  “Make this easier on all of us.  We’ve got capes, and we’ve got you outnumbered.  Come with us, and we’ll leave this chick and the guy downstairs in one piece.”

“Deal,” Kenzie said.

“No deal!” Natalie said.  “What’s wrong with you guys?  She’s a kid.

“She’s got enemies, and she’s not exactly popular right now.  As far as a lot of people are concerned, a lot of people who watch television, she’s fair game.  If you get in the way, so are you.  ”

“That’s not how it works.  There is no ‘fair game’.”

“If we can get away with it, it’s fair,” he said.

“It’s really, really dumb to attack a tinker in her workshop or home,” Kenzie said.  “You’re being recorded on cameras.”

“No,” Natalie said, quiet.  “Not a good approach.”

“But they’re being idiots.  They’re not going to get away with it, so it’s not fair or good.”

“You’re just making them desperate,” Natalie murmured.

“She’s not making us anything,” the guy retorted.

“I’m not making them desperate and I’m not making them anything,” Kenzie said.  “Because I’m giving myself up.”

“No,” Natalie said, seizing Kenzie’s arm as Kenzie walked past her.  “No.”

Yes.  You and Tony are cool and you don’t deserve this.”

“They’re going to hurt you.”

“Probably.  Or kill me.  That girl over there is Colt, hi Colt.”

“How do you know my name?”

“Her mom misses the hell out of her, since she left home to go be a henchman for Nailbiter.  Nailbiter is in Love Lost’s group, and Love Lost’s group is all about violence and threats.  Protection rackets, debt collection and doing hits on people.  Sometimes hits with prejudice.  Making it hurt.”

The guy smirked.  Colt looked away, down the stairs.

Kenzie smiled back at the guy.  How could she do that?

Natalie, already glancing back behind her to see Kenzie’s expression, glanced down.  If her phone had landed screen-up, then she might be able to see if there was a signal.  If so, could she grab her phone, grab Kenzie, and get into one room, barricading themselves in there?

The phone was gone.

Was Kenzie doing something?  If so, Natalie could-

She had no idea what she was supposed to do.  It was another moment and…

She could only trust.

“Colt,” Natalie said.  “If you want out, if you’re trapped, you can call.  It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, we can get you the best possible result.”

Stupid, to say it in front of the guy.

He advanced on her.  She backed up, and she bumped into Kenzie.  It let him close the distance by another step, the point of his knife moving toward her chest.  She raised a hand, ready to defend herself in the meager way that a hand could fend off a knife, and he swiped out in the direction of that hand.  She let it drop.

The knife’s point penetrated skin, stabbing her in the sternum, just below the collarbone.  It might have been the particular spot, but the contact of metal on bone was surprisingly painful.

“Move,” he said.

How could she feel so weirdly calm like this, and panic to the point of crying over an exam for a class she was doing well in?  She could be held at knifepoint with zero idea of what to do and be almost okay, and yet when her sex buddy said he wanted to fuck her, she didn’t know how to deal.

As a kid, she’d imagined getting powers and facing down impossible situations and weirdness like this made her think maybe it was what she was meant for.  She could trigger, especially if it was only during the bad events, and-

And people who thought they might trigger didn’t.  Wasn’t that the rule?

She was finally here and she might die or be maimed for it.

No, that wasn’t even the worst possibility.

She was here, finally, and Kenzie or Tony might die, with her left intact, agonizing over how she’d had no heroism in the end.

For that, she couldn’t move.

She watched the man’s expression twist.  A twist of the knife followed, point still against bone, edge still in flesh.  As she reacted in pain, her hands moving involuntarily, he flicked the knife out again, slashing at the hand as if it might reach.  She backed away, hands dropping.

The pain followed a second later.  Blood.  He’d cut her as part of that slash.  She started to react, and saw him brandishing the knife.

“No!” Kenzie said.  “Please.  Okay?  I surrender for real, ignore her.”

“Don’t you dare,” Natalie said.

“Just- here,” Kenzie said.  She pulled the silk scarf from her head.  “Press this down on the cut.  That’s what you’re supposed to do, right?  Please.”

Natalie took the scarf.

Kenzie turned to the guy, hands out and to the sides.  “Please?”

The guy didn’t wait.  He bent down, reaching for Kenzie, seizing her by the shoulder.  She ducked out of his grip, and pushed at his arm, knocking it away.

He brought the knife around- and for just a second, there was a distortion, three or four Kenzie heads and shoulders, a body at an angle.

As the distortion passed, Kenzie was gripping the man’s wrist with two of her hands over her head.

Natalie got to her feet again, stepping forward to help, to follow through before Colt could step in.  Not that there was a real point.  Kenzie held the wrist with one hand and moved the other, the hairpin held within, point raking along the length of the guy’s arm, wrist to elbow.

He dropped the knife, and Natalie hurried to pick it up.  He kicked Kenzie, one hand gripping his wound, and Natalie, still rising to a standing position, hurled herself into him.  She was smaller, but she caught him off guard- there was a chance that he could have resisted her or pushed back, but she had the knife, and she could see his eyes widen as he realized it.  He let himself be driven back, to where he tumbled down the stairs, stopping as he collided with Colt, who was just around the bend in the stairs, positioned to brace herself.

“You don’t want this,” Natalie said, to Colt.

“They’re up here!” Colt hollered.

Natalie hopped down to the stair that was broader because it turned the corner, and kicked Colt.  It helped the guy fall down a few extra stairs.

She thought about taking one hostage, just to buy time for help to arrive, if it was even on the way.  Time-time for Kenzie to build something.  Was that even possible?

Then she saw the man at the base of the stairs, wearing a shattered porcelain mask.  She could see it in his eyes.  He didn’t care.

He moved his hand, and there was a lawn dart in it.

It hit the wall behind her as she hurried back upstairs.

Buy time, bide time.

Into the parent’s bedroom.  She shut the door, then worked to move the dresser into the way of the door.  She sat with her back to the dresser.

Thuds hit the door, at varying intensities.  Something hit it hard enough to splinter wood above.

“You’re bleeding.”

Natalie grit her teeth.  Something hit the door with an impact that made the dresser move, Natalie’s head flying forward as the third object moving in the chain of conserved energy, then naturally moving back to crack against the wood.

“Can’t do much about it right now.  Did you call help?”

“I gave it a try.  And I did the projector thing, and glanced at the cameras.  It was four people, two capes.  Hookline’s got Tony.”

“Kid!” Kitchen Sink raised his voice.

“Hi!”

“I’ve got a burning plank in my hand right now.  I’d say you have until it gets too hot for me to hold before it becomes your problem.”

“Um!  We moved furniture, and my friend is bleeding enough she might be too weak to move it away.”

“Fine.”

There was a sound of wood clattering.

Natalie frowned.

“You’re not bleeding that badly,” Kenzie said.  “Come on.  Window.”

Natalie started to stand, and then fell, more out of the surprise of how difficult it was than out of the actual difficulty.  She was actually weaker.

And it was actually a good amount of blood, now that she could see what she’d deposited on the floor in the short time since sitting.  In the unlit room, it looked black on a gray floor.

Stay calm for Kenzie and Tony.

She climbed to her feet with Kenzie helping, and she made her way to the window.

Kitchen Sink was already outside.  As her head popped up, he hurled something.

“I wish I had my stuff,” Kenzie said.

“Sorry.”

“Oh, don’t- I don’t blame you.  It was smart and right to not want to bring everything.  It’s just- being a tinker sucks sometimes.”

Natalie chanced another look outside.  Kitchen Sink was creating and tossing away things.  One in each hand.  Utensils, vases, toys.

He’d found one he was keeping.  She could barely see it in the dark.

A stick?  A stick of dynamite, unlit.

“We need to throw something out there.  Don’t let him figure something out,” Natalie said.

“Got it.  Books?”

Whatever.

Natalie did what she could to open windows.  Kitchen Sink threw something at the window, but it only cracked the glass.  She got the window open partway.

Kenzie had hardback books.  Natalie reached for the first.

“You’re hurt.”

“I’m pretty sure I’m still stronger than you.”

“Well, that’s rude.”

With a two-handed grip on the book, Natalie heaved it through the open window, in Kitchen Sink’s general direction.

There was a return throw.  She checked immediately after.  He’d moved a step to the side.

Another throw- her shoulder hurt with the movement, but adrenaline carried her through.

After her third throw, she heard vehicles.  She could hear Kitchen Sink shouting.  She chanced a look – he’d lost the dynamite at one point.

The group of capes were running off to one side, all together.  Colt, the guy from the top of the stairs.

The focus of the vehicles was on the house- they didn’t give chase.  But they weren’t alone.

A shape like an eel crossed with a large wolf paced into the scene, weaving between the trucks, where patrol officers were just emerging.

Kenzie leaned out through the window, past the broken glass before Natalie could stop her, and pointed in the direction the bad guys had gone.

The eel-thing, which had to be Cryptid, ran off.

“He came,” Kenzie said.  Her voice was soft.  “Infinity and seven.”

Natalie nodded.  She reached for a pillowcase beside the bed, and pressed it to her cut.

“I’m sorry you got caught up in this,” Kenzie said.

“It’s what I signed on for.”

“I don’t think it is.  I think we really kicked the hornet’s nest.”

Natalie nodded.  “Tell them about the fire.”

“You can’t?”

Natalie wasn’t sure if she could.  “Conserving strength.”

“Guys!” Kenzie called out.  “There might be a fire upstairs!”

People broke into a run, a straggler emerging from the patrol truck with a fire extinguisher.

The shout had drawn attention.  Victoria appeared, landing on top of a truck, eyes searching, before she found faces peering through the window of an unlit room.  She flew to them.

“Are you okay?”

“Got cut,” Natalie said.

“She’s bleeding a lot.”

“Let’s get you out of there.  I’ll lift you down.  Come on.”

Natalie began to work her way through the window, which didn’t open all the way.  Nice house as it was, there were still shortcuts in construction.  Victoria helped her.

Victoria’s voice was reassuring.  “We’re getting our forces together.  Same as Trial and Error.  This doesn’t go unanswered.”

“My-” Natalie started.  She wasn’t sure how to label Tony.  Stupid, to have that be the thing she stumbled over in this moment.

“Tony’s scraped up and scared, but he’s otherwise fine,” Victoria said.

Natalie nodded.  With that, she could pass out.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Beacon – 8.12

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

The television studio had been flipped on its head for the time being.  The hosts were quiet, the audience was loud with chatter, and the stage wasn’t so bright with the lights on above the audience.  We weren’t the focus and we could breathe and we were simultaneously under an immense pressure- not trying to find the flow of things and steer with it, but caught with nothing to keep us afloat, the waters rushing away to gather strength for the incoming wave.

It would have been easier if the show had continued.  Instead, monitors intended more for the hosts showed the ad break and a countdown until we were live again.

Lynn, Hamza and John Combs were all talking together, with two members of the studio staff leaning in close.  The audience talked about what they’d heard.

Ninety seconds.

“Are you doing okay?” I asked Lookout, my hand over my microphone.

She nodded, doing the same with her microphone.  “The pressure’s off me, right?”

“They’ll return to it, probably,” Capricorn said.  He leaned one forearm across on one knee, his weight shifted hard to the right- he sat at the leftmost end of our row of four chairs, so he had to work to get in close enough to talk to us and not be overheard.  “They prepared for a show with your family as an example scenario.  Right now, they’re looking for a way to right their ship, and that stuff they prepared is a tool at their disposal.”

“Ugh,” Kenzie said.

“It’s not the end of the world if it happens,” I said.  “It sucks, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want anyone attacking you.  But we planned for it, we have a strategy, there shouldn’t be any big surprises.”

She nodded.

“Let’s think other approaches.  Do they hit any of us on credibility?” I asked.  “Me keeping my powers covert in Patrol block?”

“Weak,” Capricorn said.

“Maybe.  They just need to cast doubt,” I said.  I eyed the timer on the monitors.  Two minutes, twenty-one seconds.

“It’s weak doubt.  Capes keep identities secret.  You have a reason for doing it,” Capricorn said.

“Okay.  Who else do they target?  Bait one of us into talking, then attack them?”

“Mute my microphone,” Swansong told Lookout.

“Done.”

“If they choose me, I deflect.  I’m only here in spirit,” Swansong said, with a slight smile on her face.  “I’m one of several clones.”

“Good,” I said.  I glanced at the countdown.  I put a casual smile on my face, in case the audience was fixated on me.  Best to look confident.  “Capricorn?”

“I’m vulnerable.  Not so much credibility as… dark.  Going back to my murder charge.  Making me out to be a bad guy.”

“We talked about that, briefly.  I would have liked actual details, so I can back you up, but…”

“But my brother wants it left in the past,” Capricorn said.  “If it comes up, I’ll deal with it.”

“Don’t hand them the ball,” I told him.  “Morality, that stuff, don’t bring it up, they’ll use it to launch into the topic.”

Capricorn nodded.

I looked at the clock.  One minute, fifteen seconds.

“Attacks on us miss the point,” Swansong said.  “They could do worse?”

“How?” Lookout asked.

“They could make us leave.”

Kicking us out during the ad break?  My initial thought was that it would fail.  On rumination, though… what would we even do?  They had the platform, and we hadn’t had a good chance to lay out what we wanted to say.  They’d cut to ad break shortly after my pronouncements about Gold Morning.

If we were ejected… it’d be a complete and utter mess.  Point missed.  They’d get raised eyebrows, but we would be the group that had put out some problematic info and then left before owning it or taking the time to defend ourselves.

Swansong nodded, more or less in tune with my line of thought.  It would be bad.

“Shit,” Capricorn said.  “Let’s hope it’s too late for that.”

The lights around the audience went dark.  Little boxes mounted above and in front of the audience glowed yellow, a word illuminated in the sudden gloom.  On the televisions, the countdown was in the final twenty seconds, as an ad for a show on the same network played.

Only seconds.  They couldn’t kick us out if there were only five seconds left.

Kaylar, our friendly assistant in the cheap suit from earlier, practically skipped as she left the conversation with the hosts.  My heart skipped a beat.

How would we handle this?  Did we stay despite being asked to leave?

Three seconds.  Two.  One.  The audience went quiet.  The lights and focus were on us, but the wave of response hadn’t hit yet.

The monitors shifted to the show’s logo.  ‘Hard Boil’.   ‘TV-B’.  Staff hurried away from their huddle with the hosts, glancing at Kaylar.

On the monitors, they segued straight to a video recap.

We weren’t on screen.

“Guys,” Kaylar said.  “Just doing my job here.”

“Hi,” I said.

Her job was either to tell us we had to vacate, or-

“Are you doing alright?  Do you need anything?  Water?”

We shook our heads.

“It’s going well so far.  Keep it up!”

With that, she was gone, fleeing the stage before the focus came back to us.  She’d occupied our attention in the moments the clip was playing on the screen.  Silhouettes of a couple, the lighting from behind enough to show the very edges of their hair, heads, necks, and shoulders, but hide their faces and identifying details.  Julien and Irene.

“…always difficult,” Julien said.  “She told the teachers stories.  Babysitters too.”

“We sent her to camps.  Things after school, what was it?  Piano?  Art?  Computers?”

“Yeah.  Soccer, but she wasn’t one for sports, especially team sports.  She didn’t make friends at any of the classes or camps.  Never brought anyone home from school.  We gave up on taking her to those after a while.  She wasn’t getting anything out of it.”

I looked over at Lookout.  She glanced up at me and smiled.

I gave her shoulder a rub.

John Combs’ voice could be heard, interviewing the pair as part of the pre-recorded clip playing for the audience.  “I’ve wondered whether people know, even before it happens.  Were these parahumans quiet, strange, or aggressive?  Did you think she might be different back then?”

“Quiet and strange.  I never thought about powers or that she might be the kind of person who gets them, but it makes sense in retrospect.”

“If we’d suspected, we would have done things differently when she found us again.  The last we’d heard she was in the hands of the authorities, then the world ended, and with no warning she appeared in front of us.”

“Spinning more stories for people who were overwhelmed trying to assign people houses and work.”

“And the video manipulation.  That was our first hint that something was wrong.”

I leaned over to Lookout and whispered, “Are you sure you don’t want to talk about what they did?”

“I’d really rather not,” she whispered back.  “Not on television, in front of everyone.”

“-false videos?” John was asking, in the clip.

“Putting us in scenes where we weren’t, making it look like we committed crimes,” Julien responded.  “A preteen girl, she found us and she trapped us.”

“She trapped them,” John said.  His actual voice, and not the clip.  On the monitors, he stared into the cameras, his face severe.  His expression changed, a slight smile.  “And we’re back.”

Lights gave the go-ahead for the audience to applaud.  Cameras moved, slowly turning to keep us centered in the shots.  The clapping had more energy than it had had when we’d made our appearance.  When Gary had made his.

“Now, that clip was recorded yesterday, and obviously we didn’t know about this big story you would be giving us all tonight.  It’s impressive and monumental if true, we will get back to it.  But first, can we talk about Lookout?  What’s your reaction on seeing that?”

“Um.  That’s tricky,” Lookout stumbled.

“Enraged,” Swansong said, her voice cold.

“That’s a strong word,” Hamza retorted.

“It’s a good word,” Lookout said.  “Um, and thank you for caring, Swansong.  I got tired of being enraged or feeling much of anything about what my parents do, a long time ago.  I don’t really try to understand them.”

“A breakdown in communication?” Hamza asked.  “A lack of appropriate emotion, be it shame or empathy, can suggest certain labels.”

“Those labels you’re implying don’t apply to kids,” I said.  “Let’s get real here.”

“That’s what we’re trying to do tonight,” Lynn said, all enthusiasm and verve. “Getting real.  We’re getting answers- about what happened on Gold Morning.  And as part of that, I want to know what it’s really like, to live with a parahuman?  Sometimes we hear from… what’s the term?  Cape wives?  And cape husbands, I suppose.  Legend had one.”

“As the slang goes online, even the men are ‘cape wives’,” I said.  “But I don’t think that’s important.”

“Amen to that,” Capricorn said.

“There’s no cape parent, is there?” Lynn asked, glossing past us.  “They don’t have a voice.”

Hamza’s heavy voice cut in, following up and speaking over Capricorn’s response.  “There isn’t a guidebook, and there’s definitely no guide for what happens when the child gains incredible power and flips the script on the parent, seizing authority, asserting control, deciding how the parent lives their lives.  What they can wear, what’s served for dinner, the chores…”

“My parents are finally where they belong,” Lookout said.  “They’re in jail.”

“With,” I added, interjecting in much the way Hamza had, “the courts fully aware that Lookout can manipulate video.  At a time when they were processing dozens of Fallen and pushing other cases off to the side, they had witness testimony, video footage and past records, and they decided it was best to incarcerate.  Despite being overloaded.  Make of that what you will.”

“But we can’t know,” Hamza said.

“The decks are stacked,” Gary said.  “Victoria’s sister was in the Birdcage for good reason- now she’s free.  Capricorn was facing trial, with proceedings benched indefinitely, until the end of the world erased all records.  There are members of the Slaughterhouse Nine who are alive and free.”

“There were no records, no facilities, and there was no organization.  By necessity, it was treated as a second chance for everyone.”

Bullshit,” Gary retorted.

Lynn cleared her throat.

“Bull,” Gary said.

“It’s not bull.  That was the reality,” Capricorn said.  “There are multiple criminals out there that I helped put away who are free now.  they’re out there and I have to worry about them.”

“Same here,” I said.

“Me too,” Lookout said.  “I was more behind the scenes though, and the Wards kept me away from big stuff, so it’s less obvious I played a role in getting anyone arrested.”

“It’s bull because the second chances aren’t being evenly distributed.  Two parents are arrested based on their past records, as you said earlier.  New, possibly falsified evidence, witnesses who may or may not be biased, and past records.  No wiping the slate clean there.”

“The slates aren’t wiped clean,” Capricorn said.

I tensed.   I was worried about them delving more aggressively into Capricorn’s backstory, if he got more moral-focused and put his jaw out for the return smack.  The way we were discussing things, there were a half-dozen mysteries surrounding us.  Who we were, what we’d done.  Delving into any of the mysteries would satisfy the audience, and we didn’t want them chewing on that.

He seemed to notice I’d tensed, and didn’t elaborate.

“What are they, then?  It seems one sided,” Lynn said.

“The past still exists,” Swansong picked up the slack.  “We look past it until there’s a reason to bring it up.  If you screw up, you lose your second chance, and it’s fair game again.”

Gary shook his head.  “We give this pass even to a walking, talking, potentially unhinged bioweapon?  Allowed to go free.  Come on, Victoria.  How do you feel about that?  You should know as well as anyone what your sister is capable of.  One person, who could singlehandedly wipe out Earth Gimel.  Or, if she so chose, the whole population of an alternate Earth.”

“I know as well as anyone what she’s capable of,” I said.  I felt too aware of where I was, the amount of air in my lungs, the beat of my heart.  I felt overwarm for the first time, the stagelamps overhead hot as they shined on me.  “I grew up with her.”

“You grew up with her and you parted ways with her.  You no longer communicate,” Gary said.

“I don’t know why you’re all so obsessed over her,” I said.  My voice sounded too breathy, as I tried to sound casual or dismissive and ended up with a voice that sounded hollow instead.

“She put you in the hospital-” John Combs said.

“We’ve gone over this.”

“-and you needed special facilities,” he continued.  “Because she went to the Birdcage, the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center, and she left you with eight arms, ten hands, three heads with one additional face that had no head or skull to go with it, two-”

I used my aura, hard, and I wasn’t sure it was purely by reflex.  It was the closest thing I had at hand to slapping him across the face.

In the doing, I hit my team, and from the sounds of it, I hit the audience.

I was keenly aware of the silence that followed.  Of the noises from the audience that had been affected.  Lookout’s eyes were wide behind the mask she wore on her fake, projected face.

Gary spoke, “That, for the benefit of our audience-”

“Please be quiet for a second,” I said, my head lowered a fraction.

“-was a power use.  Antares has the ability to project emotions, and she just gave everyone here, including our audience, a moment of abject terror.”

“How dare you?” Hamza barked.

“How dare you?” Capricorn retorted.  “Opening up someone’s old wounds and getting affronted when they react?”

“How dare you? Hamza barked, again.  He puffed up, chest expanding, and glanced over his shoulder at the staff in the background.

No.  This was all wrong.  This was everything I didn’t want to happen.

“You wanted to get real?” I asked, looking at Lynn.

I was drowned out.  Hamza was blustering, saying something.  The audience was getting louder.

Lynn looked right past me as she turned to the camera.  “We may have to take a short break.”

I stood from my seat.  It was another aggressive power move, like using the aura had been.  It got attention, and it threatened.  Swansong stood from her chair too, moving oddly as the projection failed to transition between two poses perfectly.  From grace to glitch and back to grace.

Capricorn, meanwhile, leaned forward, not quite standing, his hands out, urging the hosts to stay seated.  The look he gave me was worried.  Only Gary stood, backing away, almost afraid.

In the background, some people were leaving their seats, filing out through the door.  Only five or six, but a camera swiveled a hundred and eighty degrees, focusing on their departure.  Footage for the show, no doubt.

I had the stage, for better or worse.

“You wanted to get real, Lynn?” I asked.

“That was our intention.  It sounds threatening when you say it like that.”

“That was never my intention.  It was always my goal to share information, to inform.  I taught with the Patrol block, I joined this team to teach and counsel, and I wanted- want Breakthrough to be about sharing information and informing, among hero teams.”

“Among hero teams?  I notice you don’t mention the civilian heroes, like police,” Gary said.  He hadn’t sat down again or approached his chair.  He looked like he could bolt at any moment.  That nervousness communicated itself to the audience.

“They’ve got their hands full,” I said.  “If they want information, I’ll gladly give it to them, but I’m not going to put more on their plate just yet.  Give us a week or three to iron out the wrinkles and get organized.  That way, any of the issues that come up with any new venture don’t become their issues.”

“How generous of you,” Gary said.

I didn’t dignify that with an answer.  I looked at the hosts who were still seated.  “Real?”

“It still sounds threatening,” Lynn said.

“Do you know where powers come from, Lynn?”

John answered, not Lynn.  “We know where you say they come from.  Scion.  The story about what he is and where he comes from has come up here and there, but it been from people who sound like crackpots, it sounds even more crackpot on its own, and the credible people have been silent.”

“Are you saying I’m not one of the credible people?”

“We’ll definitely have to look into it and verify with outside sources, to make sure you aren’t giving us a tall tale as a distraction,” he replied, measuring out his response with a care that would ensure that anyone who could put one and one together would know he was saying ‘yes’.

“The good guys will back it up,” I said.  “Scion is a fragment of something bigger.  We killed it.  Its partner- gone.  Based on what we know, they left a trail that ensures their kind won’t be coming after them.  All we have to do is manage the fallout.  And that’s not easy.  Things they set up are unraveling, that’s why we’re getting the broken triggers.”

“The disasters, people getting powers and dying immediately?” Lynn asked.

“Taking other people with them,” Hamza said.

“Yes.”

“And he gave you dangerous impulses, so you aren’t in control of your actions?” Gary asked, his voice dripping with doubt.  “You’re not to blame.”

“Scholars have known or theorized about that for a decade.  It’s not a secret, and it’s not a free pass.  As you guys said, my so-called sister hospitalized me.  I’m not forgiving or forgetting, I’m not giving her a pass.  A person destroyed me and I’m not going to bang my drum and demand they see the inside of a prison.”

My voice was raw with emotion, rancor both for my sister and for the people who were making me talk about her.  It wasn’t the image I wanted to convey, but given a choice between silence and speaking on this, I was going to favor the latter.

“We can’t afford to dwell that heavily on the past.  I’m trying to focus on the present moments and on the days ahead.  We can’t make it if we let fear rule us.”

“Amen,” Capricorn said.

“You make it very easy to fear you,” Gary said.  “You don’t give us many reasons to trust you.”

“You don’t give us much reason to trust you,” Swansong said, barely audible behind me.  “If you can’t help us, stay out of our way and let us do what we need to.”

I wanted to correct that, to reject it.

I let it stand.

“When I asked if you knew where powers came from, I meant on the personal level.  How did Lookout end up with powers?  How did I?  You were asking the question when you talked to her parents.”  My voice was very level as I spoke.

“There are theories,” John said.  “The Triumvirate released a book that seemed to confirm the most popular.”

“That it took an event,” I said.

“Yes.”

“Good or bad?” I asked.

“That was the idea.  The greatest and strongest came from good events.  The lowly and the monstrous came from the violent, ugly moments.”

“It’s prettied up,” I said.  “The part about good things giving powers.  That’s not true, that’s the old government trying to keep kids from trying to force it, like your two people in black raincoats that you mentioned earlier.”

“They did get powers.”

“Long after,” I said.  “You can’t make them happen because if you think it’s a possibility, you aren’t low enough or desperate enough.  You can’t force others to get powers or governments would have whole battalions of people with abilities.”

Had to keep kids from hurting themselves, even if it made it harder to maintain the thrust of my little speech here.

“You wanted real?  There it is.  Powers and where they come from.  Millions are watching and millions are on the same page as us.  Scion?  Something set him off, I don’t know the particulars, but he wanted to wipe us out, parahuman and human both.  We fought like hell and I lost family members in that fighting.  He was everything that was wrong with parahumans, and we beat him, and maybe his influence on some of the worst of us has loosened.  Maybe.”

“Nilbog was quiet, almost civilized.  Bonesaw was helping, with careful monitoring because we’re not idiots,” Swansong said.

“The remaining Endbringers are quiet,” Capricorn said.

“We have our problems,” I said.  “We have big issues, really.  But we can’t add the issues of yesterday to them, and we can’t… we can’t do this.  We can’t manufacture issues.  We’re going to organize, and we’re going to help each other.”

“We’ll answer other questions,” Capricorn said.  “But not tonight.  We have things to do.  We’re out there.  We’re not hard to reach.  If you’re news, government, finance, if you’re a cape and you don’t know what the heck you’re doing, reach out.  We’ll do what we can.  Resources allowing, and we’re getting those resources in place.”

“You’re talking like you’re done, but we still have half of a show left,” Lynn said.

Was I?  Were we?

I was.  We were.

“You brought up the arm thing,” Lookout said.  “And her hospital stay.  It was scummy.  I think we’re leaving, yeah.”

She’d checked with us before the ‘yeah’.

Yeah.

We’d wondered what would happen if they’d kicked us off the show and tried to take control of the narrative.  Without planning it among one another, we’d arrived on the same page about how we’d handle this.

“You can talk about Lookout’s case, Capricorn’s, and Swansong’s, or you can dredge up Mayday’s history.  Time and the courts will tell.  In the meantime, we have work to do.”

“The same applies to Lookout’s family,” Gary Nieves said.  “They haven’t been tried or convicted by the court.”

“We’ll trust the process,” I said.

“So will I,” Gary said.

We left the hot illumination of the set, into the dimly lit side area, beneath the staring, hostile eyes of the crowd in their seats.

The mention of the Wretch on national television had felt like the moment the wave had connected.  It hadn’t been.  That was just for me, my own misshapen boat on uneven, dark waters.

There was always going to be the backlash.  Hostility, blame.  Breakthrough being the faces of the enemy, for those who wanted to blame parahumans and make them out to be the people standing between the refugees of Gimel and a better future.

That backlash was always going to be hardest at first.  The people who watched that show were the people who were receptive to it.  We’d left the set -it hadn’t been going anywhere good- and they’d had another fifteen minutes of discussion and pre-recorded footage before ending prematurely.

The messages were rolling in from online, people finding us and then passing it on to their friends or whatever communities they belonged to.  There was a lot of vitriol.

“You can tell yourself that it’s going to be worse when it’s new, the people who are going to back us have to catch on that something’s going on, catch up, and then find their own voices,” I said.

“Yeah,” Sveta said.

In the time it had taken me to say that, seven messages had come up.  In the subject lines alone, two had profanity.  The other five weren’t exactly roses and sparkles, either.

“But… this is pretty disheartening.”

“It is,” Sveta said.  “Speaking from experience… the best thing you can do is look away.”

I watched as more messages came in.  Sixteen in ten seconds.  That was cheating, though.  Five were the same guy.  Subject line: Fuck.  Subject line: Yourselves.  Subject line: With.  Subject line: A.  Subject line: Rake.

“I have to wonder at the mechanics of that,” Rain said.  He wasn’t next to me, but stood by Tristan’s laptop.  He wasn’t looking at that either, but if he was here in the headquarters at eight o’clock at night, that meant the real him was in his cell, a laptop in front of him.  He could see the same email feed.

“You could weaponize it,” Chris said.

“I don’t mind rake man,” Ashley said.  “That’s a fire that burns hot and for a short time.”

“It’s a fire that burns stupid,” I said.

I saw her smile.

There were other messages, though.  One more email came in.  It was longer, with five times the filesize of even the larger of the others.

In Rain’s court, a girl had read her letter to him, giving him her forgiveness.  It had been thoughtful, meaningful, personal, giving and possibly life-altering.  This email was almost the inverse of that.

A woman had lost her son and she poured grief onto the page like water flowed from a waterfall.  It was feeling rather than thought, raw, and disconnected from us, our actions, and who we were.  It was purely and wholly selfish.

Jessica Yamada had once asked me to write letters.  They hadn’t been letters I was meant to send or give, but ones that let me figure out the sizes and shapes of some of the individual wounds, so I could work on them.

This was that, but it had been sent.  The room was quiet and I imagined everyone was either lost in thought or busy reading, taking it in.  It was long.

A lot of hurt.  A lot of blame.

“Just look away?”  Sveta asked.

It was hard.  It was being stuck on train tracks and seeing the onrushing train, being told not to flinch at the impact or pay too much attention to the train.  There was nothing we could do about it in this moment, so we were supposed to let it roll us over, damage us.

The same window that gave us a view of the train or of the damage was the window I had to look through to see if there was help coming.  If it was worth it.

I closed my laptop.

“I was talking with Fume Hood and the Malfunctions,” Sveta said.  “The Malfunctions started their stakeout and realized they didn’t bring food.  It was a whole thing.”

“They’re okay?”

“I sent someone their way.”

“And Fume Hood?”

“She’s fine.  She was with the Malfunctions for a bit, then went her separate way, keeping tabs on someone from our A-list of concerns.  She’s been at this for a while, hasn’t she?”

“Yeah.  At least six years, maybe eight.”

I could see Kenzie’s computer screens at the front.  She was talking with Ashley, reading the messages without a glimmer of a smile on her face.  If anything, she looked energized by Ashley being there, her chatter punctuated by brief statements from our ex-villainess.

Emails with bold text to signify they were unread.  The labels along the right side of each email were color coded.  Too many were white.  Unknowns.  Anonymous people.

Chris… doing his own thing.  Too hard to read.  His stuff was all packed up and he was ready to go back and retire for the night, just as soon as he was sure nothing big was happening.  Goddess, attacks, riots.

There was a large enough subsection of the population that resented us and enough stirred up by this to spark a riot.

Byron and Rain were the best people to watch, if I wanted to check the reception.  If I wasn’t following the list and immersing myself in that flow of resentment and toxicity, then I could at least watch their faces and see if there was a note of interest anywhere, a spark of hope or light as someone said something in support.

“Did we make a bad impression?” I asked Sveta.  “I thought we looked good on stage.”

“You intimidated,” she said.

“I tried to cover as best as I could, once my power leaked out.”

“Wresting control of the situation.”

“Was that wrong?”

“In some of their eyes, you’re a monster,” Sveta said.  “Anything you do is wrong, somehow.  For others… it was their show.  You threw your weight around, took over the discussion.”

“If we let them have the control, it was going to end in disaster.”

“Oh, for sure,” she said.  “But you took over, and that’s what they’re afraid of, I think.  They’re upset.”

I could see the message inboxes on Kenzie’s screen scrolling as new messages came in.  White labels.  No change in Byron or Rain’s expressions.

“You’re right,” I told Sveta.  “I like that perspective.”

My phone buzzed in my pocket.  I was still wearing my costume, the breastplate left off, and my phone sat against my belly.  I was conscious of how alien my skin felt, and how unusual the clothes felt against my skin.   On a low level, I didn’t feel quite like me.  It had been a while since that had been the case.

If tonight continued along those lines, that dissonant feeling persisting, I’d probably need to find an excuse to get out, fly, and hit something.

“Are you going to answer?” Sveta asked.

It was my mom and dad.

I answered, putting the phone to my ear.  Too much trouble to fish out the earbud and cord from my other pocket.

“Mom,” I said.

“And me,” my dad said.  “Saw you on TV.”

“And?”  I closed my eyes, listening to his voice.  I did miss him, hurt feelings aside.  It helped to hear a voice I’d known for all my life when I didn’t feel very me.

“And people are going to be mad.  But in our corner, we’ve talked with this team we’ve been palling around with.  Not everyone’s here, but… unless a strong voice comes out of nowhere tomorrow morning, you can count us in.  Any negatives that came up are outweighed by the positives.  You guys have backgrounds?  Unresolved trials?  That can be argued down.  We’re doing the second chance thing, and people believe you when you say you want to share information and organize.”

“They’re in,” I said.  I covered the phone with one hand, felt a twinge of pain in my upper arm where the bullet wound still wasn’t one hundred percent.  “My mom and dad’s team are back on board.”

I saw the eyes of others light up.  Sveta’s was among them.

They’d been a bit down too, awash in the sea of hostility.

“Yes, we’re in,” my mother was the one who answered.  “Good job fighting for what you want.  It didn’t look easy.”

“Thank you.”

My dad added, “Knowing your sister, she’s probably going to take the excuse to reach out.”

“It would be generous of you to at least not push her away too quickly, too violently,” my mother said.

“Mom.”

“Carol,” my dad said, his tone identical to mine.

“She was put out in front of millions of people because you chose to step in front of the cameras.  That’s all I’m saying.  I hope you’ll be kind to each other if you happen to end up communicating.”

I drew in a deep breath.  “Thank you for talking to your team for me.”

“I suppose that’s you saying you’re done with this conversation.  I’ll let you go,” my mom said.

I hung up.

“A response from Mayday through his intermediary, while you were talking,” Byron said.  “It’s hard to decipher.  A tentative yes?  He doesn’t seem sure.  It might have been a mix-up in communication.”

I saw Kenzie do a fist-pump.

“Better than nothing,” Rain said.  “It’s movement in the direction we want.”

I opened my laptop to check.  For a guy with authority and personality, Mayday’s response didn’t seem to have much direction, with all of the qualifiers he’d added.

“He was in the last episode,” Sveta said.

“Of Hard Boil?  Yeah,” I said.  “Questioning competency, organization, the PRT, getting into the Echidna event in Brockton Bay, the allegations about the Protectorate.”

“Yeah,” she said.  “He’s sticking his neck out.”

“We’ll pay him back.  We’re already drawing off heat, they weren’t done with him, because they left some threads hanging.  His tie to Kenzie, for example.  Something for a later episode, maybe, maybe the conclusion episode.  We’ll divert attention and deflect from him.  Over the next couple of days, if any stations want us, we’ll give them interviews or information.  Up their ratings so Hard Boil can sink a bit.”

Sveta nodded.  “That’s time taken away from bigger crises.”

“Yes,” I said.  “Absolutely.  But it’d be one person at a time, and if we mess with their ratings so soon after they had to end a show early… might knock them down a peg or distract from Mayday.”

Sveta smiled.  “Might.”

“Might.”

More messages were rolling in.  Another team.  Shorewatch was back, the latest move in their routine approaching and retreating.

And so much anger, so much hate.  Nine negative messages for every positive, but at least there were positives.

And, so quick I almost missed it, a name flew by, one among three messages that came in all at once.

“Guys,” Chris said.  Fastest on the draw when it came to computers.  I was still double checking the name.

A name.  One of the enemy.

Goddess.

“Shit,” I heard Sveta mutter.

“I still don’t like her title,” Ashley said, her attention on the screen.

I read the message.  One word:

Meet?

Shit.  I set my teeth.

We’d put ourselves out there, and now we were on her radar.  Probably.  The others were agitated, their screens open to the one word message, all of its foreboding.  The person we were investigating and tracking was reaching out.  It could have been a threat, an ambush, a ruse.

“Victoria,” Sveta said.

I met her eyes.

“That thing, earlier today?  The suspicious thing?”

The others weren’t talking anymore.

“That was Goddess?” I asked.  “I asked if it was relevant to what we were doing, and you said no.”

“It was no,” Sveta said.  “We had other, immediate concerns, and she- she wasn’t one.”

I frowned.

“Can you bring it up, Kenz?” Sveta asked.

“Are you sure?” Kenzie asked.

“We have to, I think.  We can’t put it off or hide it.  It’s going to come up.”

I could put the pieces together before the image appeared on the screen, and it was still a slap in the face.  Still an impact that caught me off guard.

A scene, caught through a window.  Goddess, eating lunch in Earth Gimel.  Somewhere not too far from where she and her portal were situated.  If it were that alone, it would have been unremarkable, except maybe remarkable because of the clarity of the shot.

Amy Claire Dallon was in the scene, along with what might have been a pet squirrel, lurking within her sleeve, biting into her sandwich while Goddess sat across from her, holding a sandwich off to the side, her finger stabbing at the table.

I was about to open my mouth to say something, or to ask, but Kenzie seemed to read my mind.

More images.  Amy, her face covered in freckles from scalp to chin, hair tied back, long sleeves mercifully covering her arms and hands to the knuckles, she was wearing a different outfit.  Three outfits.

Another image.  Four outfits.  That squirrel wasn’t a squirrel, whatever the hell it was.

It was good that they’d kept it from me.  I wouldn’t have been able to do anything else and deal with this.  It was good they’d warned me now.

But ‘good’ on both ends still left a horrible pit in my stomach.

“It’s unavoidable,” I said, half of my meaning intended to follow Sveta’s last statement.  Half for myself, to warn the me of the present day of what was coming.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Beacon – 8.11

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Our applause was like most of the applause at a golf match- far from uproarious, provided by expectation, not by free will.  All light was reserved for the stage; four fifths of the expansive room was dark.  The audience were nebulous shapes, an audience manager with her back to us keeping everything in order.  The audience was easy to lose track of, as the lights were directed our way, a brightness I had to look past.

The three hosts were standing in the center of the stage, in front of the arrangement of table and chairs.  A woman at the front of this particular triumvirate- Lynn Chess.  Black hair in a bun, bangs straight across the forehead, black suit jacket, a light blue silky top that cut straight across her cleavage, black skirt.  She would have looked severe, if it weren’t for her expression and the animation in her eyes, a smile natural on her lips.  The face of the group.

With the applause dying down, I could hear her talking.  We didn’t have the benefit of speakers, and she didn’t do the talk-show thing of waiting for the applause to die down, gesturing and smiling all the while.

“Breakthrough is an up and coming team, credited with identifying the threat to the inter-world portals and helping to save one of them…”

Hamza Kouri and John Combs walked behind Lynn to greet us while Lynn talked.

Hamza was a big guy, maybe eighty pounds heavier than Gary Nieves, bald at the top with hair only at the sides and back of his head, a thick beard and thick eyebrows that were shot through with white.  Dark brown spots flecked already deep brown, damaged skin.  I would have taken him for homeless, going by the skin, hair, and the natural angry-at-the-world glower, but his clothes were nice, tailored well to his frame.

He shook Capricorn’s hand, leaning in close to say something, one or two words.

“…Tonight, for those of you catching up, is the second episode of our series looking at the rogues, heroes, and villains of the city, and the dynamic that all of us are having to adjust to…”

Hamza shook my hand, clasping it in both of his, leaning in close enough that I could smell cigars.  An expensive habit to have, after the end of the world, when supply was next to nil.  He was barely audible.  “Good to have you.”

“Thanks for having us,” I murmured back, offering a smile.

Lynn continued, “…talked about duty, about law, and the shifts in attitude that seemed to surround our heroes in the years just before Gold Morning…”

Hamza, where he’d bent over me and Capricorn, stood very straight and stuck his hand down at an angle for Lookout.  She shook it, her hand disappearing in his.  She tugged, and he bent down, and she said something, while pointing at Swansong.

I shook John Combs’ hand.  He was a good looking guy, clean shaven, black hair styled down to the strand, button-up shirt with no tie worn under a suit jacket.  When I glanced down at his hand to shake it, I saw his shoes.  Earth Bet shoes, like Hamza’s cigars.  His grip was aggressively firm, but he actually smiled as he murmured a pleasantry.

“…Tonight, our focus shifts to the present, and how the authorities are handling this, if they’re handling it at all.  Today we’re focusing on the question marks.  Our investigative reporters brought three cases to our attention.  A pair of killers in black raincoats.  A husband and wife are held hostage by a family member that was taken into PRT custody years ago.  An actual, literal warlord rules over a disconnected section of the city, and it’s not the only one,” Lynn said.  Her eyes lit up.  “One of the alleged culprits is with us tonight.”

I raised an eyebrow at that.

John had wrapped up the handshakes.  He touched Lynn’s arm as he moved back to center, joining Hamza.  “Joining us again at our table tonight, we have the recent candidate and contender for the city’s first run at Mayor, and an outspoken, authoritative voice when it comes to figuring out where the costumed fit into things.  Mr. Gary Nieves.”

The woman who was managing the audience gave the signal, arms in movement as she encouraged.  They applauded.  More applause than we got.

Gary Nieves approached.  To my eyes, he was a touch red in the face, but I wasn’t sure if that would translate to the cameras.

We were indicated to take our seats, while the hosts greeted Gary Nieves.  The arrangement of chairs and table were an ‘L’ shape, the short leg being an arrangement of four puffy chairs, the long leg being a single table.  They faced the audience, while we faced them.

Cameras were moving, tracking our every movement.  I smiled, keenly aware of my hair, my expression, and my body language.  I was aware of the others’ body language and expressions, where visible.

I saw Tristan hesitate a moment, then step away from the chairs.  Toward Gary Nieves.  Wearing a smile that conveyed I had full confidence in Capricorn, I followed him with less-than-full confidence.  Past the three hosts, to Gary Nieves.

As the hosts finished with Gary, Tristan reached him, hand extended to shake.  Cameras moved to follow the exchange, and I could see the fraction-of-a-second hesitation in Gary.

He didn’t want to shake Tristan’s hand?  Fear?  Or optics in the eyes of the audience?

He couldn’t refuse without looking like the bad guy, so he did accept the shake.  With no helmet on, only a mask around the upper half of his face, Tristan was free to flash him a winning smile.

As Tristan turned away, Gary shook the hand he’d used to shake Tristan’s, not so much like it was gross, but like Tristan had hurt him.  I could see the hitch in Tristan’s stride as he spotted it at the last second before turning completely away.  He met my eyes.

I was pretty sure I could tell from his expression that he hadn’t squeezed Gary’s hand.  It was a power play to make us look bad, in exchange for a power play intended to toy with Gary’s optics.  A fine distinction, to discern if Tristan was resentful because of lingering feelings from Gary and Lookout a few minutes ago, or if it was because he’d just been played.

Then we were walking in opposite directions.  Tristan walked to the chairs.  I walked over to Gary to shake his hand.  I leaned in closer when I did have his grip.  I murmured.  “Going to pretend like I squeezed your hand too hard, Mr. Nieves?”

There was no smile, no change in expression, only a firm shake.  I smiled at him.

The others were seated as I strode over to the chairs.  We’d picked good people for this, and all of us came across as confident, and our team looked genuinely good.   Even Lookout, who had the most reason to be nervous, gave nothing away.

I knew she was good at pretending things were okay.  The tell was in what she did, action-wise.  We’d have to be mindful.

Tristan had taken the seat closest to the table.  The next seat, mine, was empty, followed by Lookout and Swansong at the end.

Conversely, at the table, Hamza was the closest to us, followed by John, Lynn, and then Gary Nieves at the end.  Given the description I’d gotten of Hamza, and my surface assessment from the segments of show I’d watched to research, Hamza was a bad pairing to put so close to Tristan.  They were both too prone to butt heads.

This show was a very specific kind of machine.  I’d seen fragments of it before, and it hadn’t been the kind of show that I enjoyed.  Investigative journalism leading into segments with the panel, exploring what was uncovered.  It was too aggressive a show, leaving me uneasy and tired- and I didn’t watch television to be uneasy and tired.

I’d also studied two episodes, my finger hammering the ‘skip 5 seconds ahead’ key at times to get to the next scene, where I could let it play at normal speed, see the tone, read the expressions, and see how the guest or topic were handled.  It looked like they always had the initial segment, setting the tone with an easy to understand story.  Then the guests, or the expert like our Gary Nieves here would get a chance to say their piece.  A slow roll, getting the audience used to things, and then the steady pressure, like they were interrogating a witness, looking for cracks or discrepancies.  John liked to create them, Hamza liked to attack them, and Lynn managed the tone.  However things ended up in the end, the audience would often find one of the three personalities hosting this show to be a rough approximate of their own feelings on the matter, even though all three were on the same general wavelength.

They feigned being something between a friendly talk show and a more intellectual panel show, but if they had an excuse, things tended to devolve into the attack dog dynamic.  Like the personalities, the show’s identity was nebulous enough that a given viewer could claim it was any one of the three things- friendly, intellectual, or aggressive problem solving.

For them, success meant sticking to their gameplan.  On our end, doing this right meant avoiding any sign of weakness, reinforcing ourselves and each other, and holding on to the card up our sleeve- the promise of information.  We had the advantage of knowing how they’d operate.

“Team Breakthrough,” Hamza said.  “Or is it only Breakthrough?”

“Either is fine,” Tristan said.

“And do you want me to introduce you, or will you introduce yourselves?”

“I’m Capricorn,” Tristan said.  “This is-”

“Victoria,” I said.  I pulled my hood down, trying not to mess up my hair in the process.  “Antares in costume.”

“And you wear no mask,” Lynn said.  “You use your name freely?  That’s interesting.”

“No mask,” I said.  “I never had the benefit of a secret identity.”

Lookout was removing her own helmet.  When she lowered it, I saw that her face wasn’t her usual.

“I’m Lookout,” she said.  “I do have a secret identity, so I’m camouflaging my face a bit.”

“That’s perfectly fine,” Lynn said.  “Thank you for coming on, Lookout.  I know this must all be intimidating.”

“It’s funny, lights and cameras don’t bother me much,” Lookout said.

Lynn tittered.  “Cameras being your power, of course.”

Lookout smiled.  “Yep.”

“And your fourth member would be-”

“Swansong,” Swansong said.  She sat comfortably in her seat, one leg folded over the other.  “I’m only here in spirit.”

“Only here in spirit?  That’s odd,” Hamza said, with an inflection on ‘odd’.

Swansong smiled.

“She’s sort of like a teddy bear I brought with me for security, except I’m too grown up for that,” Lookout said.  “So I brought someone cooler than a stuffed animal.”

“I’m glad I’m cooler than a stuffed animal,” Swansong said.

Lookout nodded.

“I’m surprised you came in costumes,” John told us.  “I imagined suits and masks.”

Not an angle of attack or criticism I’d anticipated.  It made sense, in a way.  Delegitimize, disarm, call reasonable and natural things into question.

“That would have bad implications,” I said.  “The aesthetic you’re talking about is a popular villain thing.  Ambassadors in Boston, Dark Society down the East coast, there was a group of weapons dealers called the Brokers… And of course the Elite who were the biggest American villain gang.  The exception on the hero side would be the Suits, and even they had costumes for serious events where they needed the extra pockets, armor, and everything else.”

“So interesting,” Lynn said.  “This is all the sort of thing you have to consider.”

“We wouldn’t want to borrow from the Suits’ look either,” Tristan added.  “The members of their team who weren’t the first casualties of Gold Morning were some of the bravest fighters.  We respect them too much to plagiarize.”

Good.  Gold Morning.  We’d get there sooner or later, and making it something we were talking about would make it feel less like a cold splash of water in the audience’s faces.

It didn’t change that we had to manage Lookout’s situation and her family.

I was alright with Capricorn taking the lead on this thus far.  He’d been following the opening segment of the show while we’d been facing down Gary.

“I’m sure our guests are wondering who you are,” Lynn said, leaning onto the table.  “Breakthrough is relatively new to the scene.”

“As a team, yes,” Tristan said.  “As individuals?  All of us here have a few years under our belts.”

“Tell us about that,” Lynn said.

Gary was staring us down.  He didn’t look happy.  Minutes spent on us and on small talk here were minutes he couldn’t do his thing.  Good.

I answered so Tristan didn’t have to.  “Speaking for myself, I was born to a family of heroes.  My mom, dad, sister, my two cousins, two uncles, aunt, all had powers.  I grew up with it.  My boyfriend was a hero.  Being a hero was my life, past, present, and future.”

“Was?” Hamza asked.

“Ah.  That point in time was a past life, and a different me,” I said.  “A majority of the people I just listed are dead or gone.  Some died fighting in Gold Morning.  Some died prior.  Some… left.”

“You’re referring to your sister, who went to the Birdcage,” John Combs said.

Asshole.  I wanted to say something to that, and I couldn’t.  But was this his plan?  To just drop things like this on us until something cracked?

“I was thinking of my uncle,” I lied.  “His partner was killed because of our lack of secret identities.  I think he couldn’t stay after that.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Lynn said.

There was strategy in play.  To anticipate that they would go on the offensive, and to disarm and lay groundwork first.  Paint a picture of who we were, then use that pictured ground as terrain we could fortify.

Hammering in that the other hero teams were doing good work, solidarity, being sure to express that we wanted to be heroes.  All were meant to cut off avenues of attack.

Still, I couldn’t ignore the sister remark.

“Thank you.  I was young, but it was hard at the time.  A tragedy.  My sister too. We’d just lost almost half of our family, the Slaughterhouse Nine showed up.  She broke down.  She went to the Birdcage because she didn’t trust herself.”

It was as kind of a response as I could come up with.  I felt a creeping sort of dread with the notion that she might be looking, watching, reading something into this, maybe even showing up unexpectedly.

“And you went to the hospital at the same time.  That’s hard,” John Combs said.  “She’s free of the Birdcage now, of course.  All of them are.”

He went straight to the hospital.  Asshole.  He had to know about the Wretch- the one I’d been, not the one I carried with me every day, now.

“You seem very interested in that one family member of mine.”

Stupid.  Defensive.

“She did go to the Birdcage.  That’s for only a select few,” John Combs said.

“John and I were talking about this earlier.” Hamza’s voice was deep, and he was slower with his words, like he could somehow leave us less words and time in the process.  “The Birdcage was emptied out on Gold Morning, so there would be more firepower out there.  Your sister was among those released.  Those are threats that are active in the city now.  Do you feel safe, knowing this?”

It was hard to find words,because they were taking this angle.  Tristan looked at me like he was checking to see that I was okay, ready to jump in.

I beat him to it.  I didn’t want to look weak in front of an audience.  I couldn’t afford for myself to see me as that weak.  “I feel like I want to do everything I can to help others feel safe.”

“Amen,” Tristan said.

“People don’t feel safe,” Gary Nieves said.  “If that’s your goal, you’re failing.”

“We’re still starting out,” Swansong said.

“But you’ve been heroes for some time, by your own admission,” Gary said.

“I can tell you I was out there in construction, helping to build shelters,” Tristan said.  “Victoria was out there in the patrol block, using what she knows about villains to keep people safe.  Swansong was getting care because she wasn’t in one piece, but she was helping authorities with research on powers.”

“And then we have Lookout,” John Combs stated.  There was weight to the sentence.

Tristan had walked into that one.

“Hi,” Lookout said.  “Mostly school for me.”

“More than school, as the allegations go,” John said.

Hamza didn’t give us a chance to respond before adding his own commentary.  “When we started looking into the story with Lookout’s family, you all told us you wanted to come onto the show, to argue your teammate’s side.”

“I hope it doesn’t come down to arguing, Mr. Kouri,” Capricorn said.

“When we decided on Breakthrough’s direction, the goal was to communicate, it’s why we’re here,” I said.  “We just want to make sure everyone has as much information as possible.

Hamza was ready with an answer, voice angry.  “And for our audience out there, let’s not lose sight of who ‘we’ is supposed to represent, when you talk about your group.  Two murderers, sitting here.”

“That’s not right,” Lookout said.

“The information is out there.  Team Reach.  The junior member Capricorn was arrested on accusations of murder, by his own teammates, no less.  We called one of them earlier tonight to corroborate the facts.”

“Hey,” Lookout said.

“Hamza,” I said, my voice firm.  “If you’ll-”

“Let me finish,” he said.  “Swansong’s presence her raises an interesting question.  She bears a startling resemblance to not one, but two murderers who are supposed to be in lockup right now.  I have to worry about how many there are.  We also have a little girl who was terrorizing her parents with threats of extortion,and then yourself, a heroine who didn’t save her hometown, didn’t save her boyfriend, didn’t save her many family members who were killed during the various major incidents, and who couldn’t or wouldn’t stop her sister from, as you put it, breaking down, putting lives at risk.  I do my research, Victoria.”

I drew in a breath.  The faint noise of audience was enough to take the oxygen out of that breath.  I tried not to let it throw me.  This was fine.  Expected.  Just… more of a gut punch than anticipated.  I needed-

Hamza interrupted my thoughts.  “I could believe that Lookout, this child here, wasn’t to blame, if this is the company she’s been made to keep.”

“That’s not fair,” Lookout said, and her voice was almost lost in the noise of the crowd.  The audience manager was motioning for them to shush, and a red light flared near the ceiling.  I imagined it was an order to shut the fuck up.

The noise level made it hard to jump in with a rebuttal.

It was a bit of a reversal of the dynamic I’d observed with the show.  Three different show identities, between its face as a friendly talk show, an intellectual panel of experts, and a pit for enemies to be targeted and torn up.

“You named a lot of points.  Would you like to name one or two of your favorites for us to address?” I asked.

“The point is that you, as a group, and parahumans, as a collective, are deeply flawed and unhealthy,” Gary Nieves said.  “Two children in black raincoats conduct a ritual with peers that were chained to a radiator and a bed, respectively.  Through this ritual, they get powers.”

“That is not how you get powers,” I said.

That got me a few raised eyebrows.

“Metaphorically, then?  They seemed to believe it worked for them.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Parahumans are taking on positions of leadership- many corner worlds, many of the refugee groups outside of America, and many of the roaming factions are controlled by parahumans.  We already know of one whole Earth which is under the sway of a parahuman and her court.  I can tell you that as someone who has had to deal with parahumans from the fringes, every single one I’ve met has deep-seated problems.”

Tristan had to twist to get a good look at Gary.  His head bent at an angle, getting close to the points of golden spikes at my shoulder, in his attempt to see the man.  “This was after Gold Morning?”

“Most that I met were after, yes.”

“Then that isn’t a fair assessment.  Everyone‘s suffering and dealing with deep-seated problems these days.”

Lynn offered a one-note laugh.  “That’s a point, sad as it is.”

She smiled and laughed while calling it sad.  It was disconcerting, taken in stride with the fact that she was working with Hamza and John to undermine us, but in a softer, harder-to-tackle way.

Leaning forward on his elbows, Gary made a fist and then clenched the fist in his other hand.  His voice was low as he said, “The idea that we might have a leader who has political or economic power, these deep seated problems, and a power?  An ability that sets them apart from the rest of us?  That’s a complete and utter nightmare, and it’s one we’ve seen in play countless times over the years.”

“And so you attack us?” I asked.  “The answer to solving this problem lies in collaborating, sharing information, and mutual understanding, not in attacking.

“The goal isn’t to attack you,” Gary said.  “We would like to use you -a team that is on the surface very presentable and helpful- as a broader illustration.”

It was Swansong who replied.  “You wanted to use Lookout as your illustration.  She’s example number two out of three.  You’re attacking a kid.”

“We’re focusing on a parahuman of interest.  That she’s younger than some doesn’t matter if she has immense power.”

“I make cameras and boxes,” Lookout said.  “People keep acting like I’m something special.”

“You are special, Lookout,” I said.  “But it’s only because you work way too damn hard for your own good.”

“Thank you.”

“The allegations are that she terrorized her parents, controlling every aspect of their lives for over a year,” Hamza said.

“And?” I asked.

Shit, there went civility.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Why does it matter, Mr. Kouri?  What do you want that you aren’t getting?”

“Consequences,” he said, his voice hard.  Lookout shrunk back into her seat.

Swansong’s voice was soft, compared to her usual, and softer still in contrast to Hamza Kouri’s aggressive tone, “Victoria discovered the problem recently.  Within the hour, she was talking to authorities.  Authorities know the details.  They chose to arrest the parents and leave Lookout with a city-appointed guardian.  Consequences were meted out.”

“Based on the say-so of a girl who can falsify her own evidence.  She’s altering her own face right now,” Gary said.

He’d already tried this.  I answered, “It was a decision made by people who have access to all of the evidence.  All of it, including paperwork she didn’t have access to.  I’m sorry, but no.  You can’t smile and say it’s fine that she’s protecting her identity one minute, then use it as a point against her the next.  And it’s a special sort of unkind to pretend there’s something wrong with protecting identities when I just told you what the consequences are, less than ten minutes ago.  I’ve lost a family member.”

“That’s not what I was saying.”

“You’re attacking us on the grounds that we’re too unreliable, too dangerous,” I said.  “But you’re taking allegations as fact and then running away with it.  Lookout, once we realized what was going on, was removed from the unhealthy dynamic.  Her parents are in custody and she’s safe in the hands of the City.  The court cases I’m aware of are in progress, but yeah, sometimes when you’re dealing with monsters, lives are lost.  The courts will arbitrate.”

“If they have untainted information,” Gary Nieves said.

“You wanted to be mayor,” Swansong said.  “Yet you can’t trust your own city’s information?  What would you have done if you won?  Would you have second guessed every one of their decisions, until you were ousted, retired, or resigned?”

“Let’s not be hostile,” Lynn said.

“I would have second guessed the ones involving parahumans who can distort reality or records.”

“They do good work,” Tristan said.  “Police, patrol block, courts, fire, medical, they’re doing the best they can, given the circumstance.  Admirable, considering circumstances.  And I’ll tell you this- we’re going to give our all to do our own share.  That’s what gets us through the colder months.”

“That’s a heavy topic of its own,” John said.

“It’s imminent,” Tristan said.  “A month or two.  You want to focus on a twelve year old girl?”

Nieves leaned forward.  “If traffic is limited, doors are closed, and this girl has the ability to get inside homes, steal or kill, and get away, hiding her evidence trail, yes.  So long as the monsters are among us, yes.”

Hamza was nodding along.  The other two weren’t disagreeing.

“I’m not going to say it’s all perfect,” I told them.  “But I’m going to try to spell out how I see this.  It’s going to involve sharing some stuff that others haven’t talked about.  About powers.  And about Gold Morning.”

I could see the audience shift at that.  My heart beat faster.

“We could just walk away,” Swansong said.  “If they want to condemn us, let them.  But we don’t owe them this, and some of it is going to come down on our heads.”

I shook my head.

“Okay,” she said.

“I grew up into powers,” I told the people at the table.  I could see expressions of concern.  “I’ve been studying them for a while.  I studied enough to know that there were huge gaps in our knowledge and those gaps were barely closing with every passing year.  Where did powers come from?  How do we get them?  Now we know.  Gold Morning wasn’t just destruction.  It was answers.”

“And you didn’t share,” John Combs said.

“For decades, people who told about other major secrets were visited by a bogeyman who targeted capes.  It was someone who could kill or disappear the invincible, outsmart the masterminds, and survive things that would kill or stop just about anything.  Whatever they planned to talk about would be mended shortly.”

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  “Then Gold Morning happened.  There were people here and there who talked about it, but most stayed quiet.  Pressure from other groups, and most of the ones with a podium to talk about it had the sense to stay quiet, because the bogeyman would act on this kind of thing.

Thank you for the reminder, Tristan, I thought.

Lookout’s hand went over mine on my armrest, squeezing.

“We had glimpses through Scion’s eyes, when our powers manifested or when certain effects came into play.  During these times, we saw things as he saw them.  It includes millions of fragments raining down on us, invisible to the naked eye.  Each of those fragments… a power.  We were made to forget, but when Gold Morning happened, we were able to remember.  He stopped caring so much about perfection, and he became something else entirely.  Not that he was ever human.”

“What was he?  An alien?  A demon?” Gary Nieves asked.

“He was an alien from another reality, more distant from us than Gimel is from Bet, as best as we can tell,” I said.  “He moved between realities like we walk through doorways.  Something went wrong with what he was trying to set up, and he lost his partner.”

“He had a partner?  There’s another one of these out there?”

“Dead in the crash landing, we think,” I said.

“What’s the point, then?  Or was that broken up in this crash too?” John asked.

“To experiment with what we’re given.  To be open and vulnerable for effective study.”

“A real justification about why you’re all so screwed up?” Gary asked.

“That’s-” I started.  I was aware of all of the eyes on me.  I smiled.  “No.  Because we have definite proof to the contrary.”

“That you’re not all screwed up, with some alien god as an excuse??”

“Some of us, probably,” I said.  “But the reality is that Scion, the strongest of us, who used powers to generate himself a body and who gave himself a set of powers that none of the rest of us could touch…. we beat him.  We were nudged here and there to take part in his games, to fight amongst ourselves we were given powers and limited in ways that didn’t let us even try to hurt him.  He was insurmountable and we… surmounted.”

“We won,” Tristan said.  “If you have any doubts about how we were ‘programmed’, look to the scholars for answers.  It’s subtle if it’s there at all.  Focus instead on the fact that when it all came down to it, we concentrated our efforts, looking past petty squabbles.  It took a nameless cape to grab us all and drag people from every corner of reality to reinforce.  That cape tried to keep us, but when we broke free, we kept fighting him, and we fought as one.”

I nodded at that.

A nameless cape.  Taylor Hebert.  Skitter.  A bug controller from my hometown.

We were too spooked at the idea that we might draw her attention and start that whole engine back into motion to mention her by name.

Best to leave it alone.

“We won,” Swansong said.  “We defeated the embodiment of that impulse.  We can and will defeat it in ourselves.”

I could see it in the audience and in the hosts of the B-TV evening show.  A split, even a fissure, running through them.  In the gloom past the bright lights, there were people who might’ve been grateful, yes, but there were many who were angry.

There was always going to be a backlash, the band-aid ripped off, the hurts reawakened.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Beacon – 8.10

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Five minutes to fly to Ashley’s place -now my apartment-, three or four minutes to get things.  Six minutes to fly back against the headwind.  I came back to the headquarters to find everything on fire.

Not literally on fire, but for all intents and purposes, everyone was in motion and being loud except the two people who weren’t really there.  Costumes, hair, clothes, words.  In making my proposal, I was throwing us to the wolves.  I was trusting that we could do okay, come out the other side with the confidence of outside parties.  The confidence of the city, who would be listening and rewatching things for days to come.

Everyone running around like they were on fire was… entirely fair.  At least it wasn’t a grim silence, this time.

I had to be a pillar.  I couldn’t get swept up in the chaos.  I put my bag of the stuff I’d grabbed from Ashley’s place on a computer chair, and used a push of my foot to send it across the room, to the corner that was mine.  I walked over, through the metaphorical fires that were igniting and being put out.

Natalie was hanging back, actually fairly near Chris’ usual nook.  Looking stuff up on her phone, it seemed, or frantically communicating.  Worry lines creased her forehead.

Ashley was with Chris, the two of them staring at a phone.  Kenzie was beside them, facing the other direction as she typed away.

“I want you to wear the armor,” Tristan said, to nobody in particular, as he walked across the room.

An instant later, with some blurring and glowing eyes, he was Byron.  “Your armor.  I’m supposed to be you?”

Another shift.  Tristan glanced at me.  He drew in a breath, eyes unfocusing, one hand gesticulating as he paced toward his station in the headquarters, not even alongside words- he wasn’t speaking yet, but punctuating thoughts before he outlined them.

“Yeah.  I can shift down, wearing my stripped-down costume, secondary armor and bodysuit, mask, present better for the cameras, it’s a bit of an effect, it’s almost like disarming, and it’s cool,” Tristan replied.

“It would be effective,” Ashley said.

“It would be scary people with powers using powers while at a public venue,” Sveta said.

“That’s a good point,” I said.

“It’s not even really using a power,” Tristan said, dismissive.  He switched out.

“Natalie?” I asked.

She lifted her head, eyes wide, wider behind her glasses.

“Give us a civilian perspective?  Someone does the transforming thing like Tristan and Byron do, in a tense but civil situation.  How do you react?”

They changed and changed back to demonstrate.

“At a television studio?  I wouldn’t mind, I don’t think,” Natalie said.  “But I’m weird.  There are a ton of things that bother me that other people treat as normal, and a ton of things I wouldn’t blink at things that annoy or freak out other people.”

“I respect that,” Chris said.  “Yes, you have to find that nugget of you and cling to it.  That stuff that makes you different.”

“It’s not anything fancy,” Natalie said.  “I’m anxious about the stupidest stuff and I can get zen with routine work and chores.  There are maybe three times in my life something horrible happened near me, and I kept my cool while other people were breaking down.  That’s basically it.”

“Fancy enough,” Chris said.

“It’s really not,” Natalie replied.

“Nat, if you have Chris’ respect, take it and run.  That’s better than a lot of us get,” Rain said.

“That’s not true,” Chris said.  “I respect you guys, mostly.  I think you’re obnoxious and wrong-headed, but you don’t suck at everything.  If you did, I wouldn’t be here.”

“Okay.  Keep swiping,” Ashley indicated the phone Chris held.

“I tell people I respect them and I get told to get back to the grunt work.  People wonder why I’m the way I am,” Chris said.

Natalie frowned a bit at Chris, then seemed to remember something, going by the small look of surprise on her face.  She snapped her attention to me.

“Oh, Victoria!  We got the go-ahead from Ms. Kenzie Martin’s guardianship to have her on the show.”

“Good,” I said.  “If you’re up for it, Kenzie?”

“Yeah.  So long as I’ve got you guys.”

Tristan had said something.  He switched.

Byron shook his head.  “There three things here I have issues with.  Your armor is heavy, and I’m not that strong.  Why are you in the spotlight, when I’m supposed to get the extra hours tonight?  And why?  Really why is it so important I wear the armor?”

He switched back to Tristan.  No immediate reply from the bolder brother, but Tristan’s hand was in motion, like an orchestral conductor with his stick.  Flick, flick, stop- he met my eye, and there was a light in his eyes.

He was nervous and he was also wholly in his element, getting ready to face this.

I was going to say something, but I heard the others.  Chris was being cranky, still on about the swiping.  Ashley and Kenzie were talking to him.  That was more of an immediate concern, as much as I worried about Tristan wanting to do this so badly he was willing to bulldoze over Byron.

“I’m going to get a repetitive stress injury if you don’t pick,” Chris said.  He had a phone in hand, and he was swiping, swiping, swiping.  “Kenzie’s putting something together to make it easier, so why not just wait two minutes and spare me the pain?”

“You’re not that weak,” Ashley said.

“I’m literally that weak,” Chris said.  “I’m prone to just about everything, because of all the tiny flaws in how I’m put together.”

“Keep scrolling,” Ashley said.

Chris leaned back, his elbow shoving the dinner-plate sized disc that handled Kenzie’s lesser projections in the field.  It moved toward the table’s edge, the lip of it extending over.  “Oops.”

Kenzie’s head snapped up.  Her eyes locked onto the disc.  “If you knock that over, I’m going to hold you down and flash you so many times light comes out your butt.”

“Wording.  Flash gun,” Chris said.

“Or I’ll use the eyehook and get inventive,” Kenzie said.  She waved her hand and the eyehook that was draped over the end of her workstation made a limp shuffle forward.  The combination of the weight of the hook on the end and the new position of the prehensile limb made it slide off the table, collapsing noisily in a heap on the ground.

“Nice,” Chris said.

“That was meant to be way more intimidating,” Kenzie said.

“We’ll work on that,” Ashley said.

Kenzie nodded, looking at Chris.  “Keep scrolling.”

“Keep scrolling,” Ashley repeated.

“Uuggh.  Maybe I should just say I’m coming, and I need to get ready, just so I don’t have to keep doing this.”

“Yeah, right,” Rain said.  “Mr. Privacy is going to go up and put himself out there in front of millions.”

“I could hide my face with the projector.”

“You could, except they’re already taken.  I’m using one for me so I don’t have to have my helmet on, and I’m bringing one so we can have Ashley come along.”

“You’re coming?” I asked Ashley.

“For Kenzie.  Is it a problem?”

There were issues, but…

“You can tell me,” she said.  “Tristan was against, Kenzie was for.”

“If she’s not going I don’t want to go,” Kenzie said.

“And…” I looked at Rain and Sveta, who were hanging back.  “Where are you guys?”

“I’m obviously not going.  I’m worried that if I comment or touch anything I’m going to make it worse,” Rain said.  “I don’t know enough about this stuff.”

“I know just enough to say I’m worried-” Sveta said.

“Worried is a good way of putting it,” Rain cut in.

“-And I feel only dread,” Sveta finished.  “Not about Ashley going.  All of it.”

“We have to do something,” Kenzie said.

“I know.  I even agree with Victoria.  I trust her.  I’m just worried this will be a disaster.”

“Agreed,” Rain said.

“You two are really on the same page, huh?” I asked.  I unlocked my computer and checked the messages.  While the page loaded, I began fishing things out of my bag.  Makeup, a hot roller for my hair, hair stuff, a clothes brush…

“We’re the ones on the sideline for this,” Rain said.  “Us two and Chris.”

“And Natalie,” Rain said.

Natalie nodded.  “I’ll be at the studio, so I can monitor Kenzie, but please don’t put me on stage.”

“Absolutely won’t,” I said to her, before looking back to the pair of Rain and Sveta.  “Your vote counts.”

“This is your thing.  You and Tristan, you understand… PR,” Sveta said.  “And I do want to learn, so I understand it for next time, but I trust your instincts more than I trust mine.  I know almost nothing.  You make the tie-breaking call on bringing Ashley.”

I nodded slowly.  I didn’t want it to be me.  It put me pretty squarely between multiple members of the group, and the fact that so many people were abstaining made it feel more like feelings would be hurt.

I looked at Ashley, and saw her with her chin held high.  Kenzie practically bounced as she talked to her.

That was Kenzie’s happiness.  In motion, restless and hard to restrain, words falling out of her mouth rapid-fire.

“Tristan,” I called out.

Byron switched.  Tristan walked over to me, then asked, “What?”

“I’m thinking we should bring Ashley.”

“They’re going to shit-talk Kenzie,” Tristan said.  “I’m going to have trouble not punching faces.  Ashley will have a harder time.”

“She can’t hit people like this.”

“She can say something, though,” Tristan said.

“So can we.  Worst case scenario, we blip her out, explain it away.”

Tristan drew in a breath.

“If it’s the two of us alone, it’s going to feel like we’re the PR team.  They go after one of us, or they create an issue, and we’re done.  Bring Kenzie in, it feels more personal.  Bring someone like Ashley in, and I think we’ll shed the image of being the public relations branch of something bigger, because it’s easier to have an actual, natural back and forth.”

“Can’t bring Rain,” he said.  “Not enough projectors, according to Kenz.  Can’t bring Chris, because we want to win this PR battle.  Sveta?”

“No,” Sveta said.

“Then Ashley.  Fine, makes sense,” he said.  He went back to what he was doing with his costume buckles and plates.

Sveta helped me by holding my bag while I fished past stray receipts, some paper, and finally got the last of the individual makeup things out.

“You don’t want to come on?” I asked her.

She shook her head.  “I can’t do- that.  The makeup, the hair.  I don’t have the clothes for it.  I’m toxic, too.”

“Toxic?  No,” I said.

“Yes.  The other Case Fifty-threes hate me.  Every time I pop up in the news because people know I’m dating Weld, it gets bitter and nasty.  For now I want to keep my head down.”

“We keep trying to talk and getting interrupted or distracted, especially about-” I stopped, glancing at Rain.

“I’ll get out of your hair,” Rain said.

“I didn’t mean to scare you off,” I said.

“S’alright.  I might need to referee for Tristan and Byron.”

Rain half-walked, half-floated across the room, a camera periodically becoming visible at the edges where his head moved too much.  Sure enough, Tristan and Byron were arguing.

“And- I really do want to spend time with you and cover all the bases, get one hundred percent caught up, and make sure there’s no stone unturned- of course, no touching any stones you want to leave alone.”

“You mentioned shopping once,” she murmured.

“I did,” I said, using my flight to make getting under the table to plug my hot roller into the wall.  “I was under the impression you didn’t want to talk about any of that stuff.”

She leaned closer, nearly losing her grip as she seized a table edge so she could bend over better.  “You’re an exception.  You’re my friend.  Tristan is pushier.”

“Got it,” I said.  “We’ll do something.  Get you clothes you like?”

She nodded.

“Something closer to hippie, surfer, bohemian styles?”

“I have no idea what those things are, but yes.  Soon?” she sounded almost eager.

I’d been neglecting my friend, trying to juggle this everything thing.  I felt bad.

“Soon.  I promise.”

“Tell me what you’re doing, so I can learn some of it?”

“Absolutely,” I said.  I saw a message pop up on my screen.

Advance Guard: if u want to bite that bullet for the rest of us, is ur funeral

Shortcut’s response, I was thinking it was Shortcut because I refused to believe it was anyone half-decent, was the latest in a long line of general agreement.

In the background, Tristan was in Rain’s company.  Kenzie was switching up her costume colors, and Ashley was- I had to look twice.  She and Kenzie had moved the camera away from the projected image of Ashley.  Now the image was changing clothes and hairstyles.

The thing on the phone – had that been a game?  A character customization menu, used to finalize her costume details and look for the projection?

“Your hair?” I heard Byron, incredulous.  “So the real reason you’re pushing for me to wear this heavy-ass armor is because you don’t want helmet hair?”

I caught the dubious look I got from Sveta.

“We’ll get the wackiness out of the way now, talk strategy in the car.”

The look didn’t pass.

‘B-TV’.  The building loomed above us as we got out of the car.  It was me, Capricorn, Lookout, and, after a short delay for the camera and projector to boot up, Swansong in a dress that combined black and white.  The dress had costume lines and straps that crossed over at the collarbone.  Elegant, but short enough a dress that it could have been indecent.

Natalie climbed out of the car and stood off to the side.  She pulled off her puffy jacket, throwing it back into the car, before locking it.  Back to her more professional demeanor.

I’d read up on Buckner, the person who controlled over half the media we got in the city, and I didn’t get the parahuman vibe from him.  Back in the day, the racist gang leader had turned out to be a businessman, outed as part of a massive break in the unwritten rules.  Tattletale, naturally.  But it had made sense.  Max Anders had been a name that I’d been familiar with through my association with Dean, I’d seen him around three or four times in my visits to high society.  He’d given me no overt clues, and yet I’d been entirely unsurprised.

Doing the cape thing in any meaningful capacity took too much effort.  Being successful and being a cape?  Possible.  Max Anders, AKA Kaiser, AKA the CEO of Medhall, he’d done it.  But there’d been something missing- I’d seen it in my mom, as she’d struck the balance of being a prosecutor and a heroine.  When you lived two demanding lives then petty things had to be pared away, like levity or idle hobbies.

Buckner was a storm of multimedia, a finger in a hundred pies, and he spent a lot of time trying to promote and investigate side things.  He went to concerts with new bands playing, sponsoring them, and had photos taken with him and the band on stage at the end of the night.  Artists, actors, movie ideas…

Too inane to be a cape.

The building was glass panes in a grid of metal bars, tinted windows that caught the glare of the spotlights.  There’d been a brief point in time when the city was under construction that the building would have been nice, taller than all of the rest that were going up around here, a visual break from the siding and brick that made up most buildings.

But that moment had been brief.  Materials had been prepared and arranged in advance, and buildings had gone up fast once we’d had the labor.

Squat, ugly, nothing distinctive about it, now, except for the illumination and the people who milled around in it, getting their smoke breaks in, one or two with hands tucked into their armpits, until they needed to bring one up to the cigarette.

I wasn’t warm either.  I looked at the others.

“Let’s go,” Capricorn said.

The lobby was brightly lit, organized in a way that would let whole crowds file in and out, or even stand comfortably around for a media or news event.  The front desk was organized appropriately for that same purpose, set up like an island in the middle of open space, the ring of desk serving to fortify against and divert the ebb and flow of any crowd.  Employees were dressed in uniforms that, like the very design of the B-TV building, would have looked fantastic in the right moment in time.  As it was, the cheaper suits with vests beneath looked like the kinds of uniforms a movie theater employee would wear, with a jacket added.

Those were the employees that mobilized to approach us, to manage us.  We’d called just before we arrived, and they were ready.

Three people for the five of us, but the security team at the other end of the room moved as we did.

My costume was clean, face made up in a way I normally wouldn’t bother with if I was going out in costume, my hair dressed up, with no braid, only the loosely spiraling tumble of hair over my shoulders, my hood pulled down over my forehead, the spikes of the hood’s ornamentation at my brow, working with the metal band that we’d worked into the white trim to keep the hood in position.

Lookout was in silver and dark gray, with an illuminated green at spots all around her costume, including the lenses of her mask.  An eye icon was displayed in white against the dark green plate of the circular projector, which was worn on her chest.  The eye shifted between three different configurations of lines and circles, an endless shuffling.  Another plate was at her shoulder, smaller than the other, with wires running along her suit to it- power.  That would be the projector that let us have Swansong with us.

She had her Eyehook, but it was in a discreet mode.  No gun, no weapon, toolbelt reduced down to the essentials.  While she walked toward the front of the group, the encasement around one of the buns of her hair opened up.  The bun, a mechanical pupil surrounded by a green iris, started staring at me.  She turned her head, glancing at me out of the corner of one eye, and I saw the slight skip in her step, alongside a small smile.

That would be the connection pad from Rain’s tech, repurposed so that she apparently now had an extra eyeball extending from the back of her head.

Two.

Televisions along the corridor were showing the ending of the show that preceded our segment.  This would be the one where a mix of adults and younger people went over the news of the day.  The dynamic was that the adults tried to do it seriously, while the kids teased, joked, interfered and played pranks.

We were led to a room not far from the studio where things were being shot.  The room had various seats, a horizontal green band running along the walls, and several televisions.  There were some others gathered.  At a glance, matching to the kids who were on the television, it was the kid actors’ parents.

“We’ll be starting shortly,” the staff member in the cheap suit told us.  “If you have to use the facilities, please let staff know so we can find you quickly if we need to get you on set.”

“Somehow this seems familiar,” Ashley said.

“If you need anything to eat or drink, there’s a fridge over there with a clipboard on top.  Write down what you took on the clipboard so we know what to replace.  Thank you, and we look forward to having you on the show!”

Bubbles and cheer.  The adults in the room were trying to block out the sound of our interruption and follow the final segment on the show.

It would’ve been easy to be grumpy or dismissive.  Instead, I put a smile on my face.  “Thank you very much.  Listen, do you have any tips?”

Tips?”

I pulled the hood of my costume back.  The others were finding seats, except for Swansong, who stood at empty space between Lookout and I.  “You watch these shows.  I’d bet a box of pastries the staff watches, you talk with each other, and you complain about how every guest does it wrong.  I’m nervous and this would help.”

“It would be bad manners for me to say.”

“I’m not asking you anything about employers, only about the guests.”

“Just as I wouldn’t tell anyone anything about you, now that you’re a guest in my care, I can’t speak about past or current guests.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I can respect that.”

“We’re broadcasting on television and radio both.  Be clear in how you speak, because a share of our followers are going to follow by audio only.”

“Good point.  I didn’t have to deal with that the last time I was on a show.”

“It’s a different time.  The panel segment that starts halfway through is where things get bad, if they get bad.  That’s your segment, by the way.  Keep an eye on H.K.”

“Hamza Kouri?” I asked.

“You know the show!”

I didn’t know the show.  I’d done research to try and figure out what we were getting into.  “Some.”

She went on, “Yes, he’s one of the panelists.  If you’ve seen, you know sometimes he derails things, he always looks for his producer in the back of the room to get the go-ahead, or to make sure they have the clip while he’s asking a question, hoping they give an answer that contradicts the clip.  It used to go over real well, but it doesn’t anymore.   Once they find a schtick, they tend to overplay it or exaggerate it over time, and it’s not playing so well now.  He asks the question or launches into the speech, and the moment there’s a weakness, he goes after it until someone makes him stop.  He shouts people down, gets condescending.  The majority of the audience doesn’t like it, so he’s supposed to be stopping.”

“He looks offscreen, then the trap?  Or the rant?”

“Yes.  Lynn likes jokes.  Keep her laughing and the mood will stay good.  John Combs is less predictable.  He does his own research.  If it’s good research he hits hard.  If not… he’s anyone you might see on the street, but with a nice jacket.”

I smiled.

“I’ve got to go run more errands to get us all ready.  I will be back to check on you before you go in.”

“Thank you… you didn’t tell me your name.”

“Kaylar.”

One maybe-ally in this whole mess, a bit of information.

Ashley had one raised eyebrow on her face as she looked at me.  Everyone else was focusing on the television screens.

“Ask someone for help, and they’re in your debt.”

“Not the other way around?”

“People want to be helpful,” I said.

“That might just be you.”

“It’s true of all of us.  Helping us made her feel more important.  It made her a part of things.  People are grateful for that.”

“There’s no use in it for me,” she said.  “I’m not the type to ask for help.”

“If you ever feel the need, remember that the other person is probably waiting for you to do it.”

She offered a dismissive sniff of the nose and shook her head.

The assorted parents were leaving the room, free to retrieve their children while the end credits rolled.  Ads were playing on the one side of the screen.

Leaping from family-friendly news to something more controversial.

The door of the room with the green stripe opened.  It was Gary Nieves who walked through.  He was solidly built, his hair short and dyed to mask white hairs, his clothes rustic.  With a wide waistband, he relied on suspenders to keep his pants up, and a tailored suit jacket to hide his suspenders.

“I had half of an hour of screen time allotted to me today.  They called to let me know they’re bringing other people on.  Now I have seven minutes.  They want to leave room for us to debate and to let you say your piece.”

I smiled a little.  “You brought her family into it, Mr. Nieves.”

“I would say she brought them into it by a campaign of extortion.  They’re small, vulnerable people in a world with terrible giants that exploit or compound vulnerabilities.”

“A terrible giant,” Ashley said, her voice dry.  She indicated Lookout, who was all of four-foot-ten and seventy five pounds.

Gary looked nettled.

“Hi,” Lookout said.

“I think I’ll wait elsewhere.”

“You should know my parents are not good people.  If they sound sweet and convincing to you, they’re just messing with you.  They’re really good at it.  Kind of.”

“Excuse me,” he said.

“Um!”  Lookout interrupted, with a loudness and urgency that seemed to catch him off guard.

He frowned.

“Um.  This isn’t that easy for me, but would you like to see the proof?”

“You falsify evidence.  Multiple sources, some ex-PRT, have confirmed this.”

“I can falsify video, because I’m a camera tinker.  Falsifying audio is a lot harder.  I’ve never been able to do it.  Here.”

“I’m not-” he started.

The video began playing.  Audio.  A sound like a single clap, a book being closed.  Then a crash.  Dishes breaking.  A man’s raised voice, muffled.

“April twenty first, first year,” Kenzie’s voice came through.  “Meet my parents, Mr. Julien Martin and Mrs. Irene Martin.  Episode three.”

“This is moronic,” Nieves said.

There were more impacts that could be heard over the audio from her phone.  Footsteps.  Even though they only existed on the phone, Lookout’s shoulders drew together a fraction.

“Kanzi,” Julien said.  There were more distant crashes.

“I’m- I’m Kenzie now.  Please, I-”

Stop,” he said.  “Stop talking, stop interfering, stop interjecting yourself into things.”

“I filled the dishwasher.  To help out!”

“You filled it wrong, and coming home to find it done is a reminder that you’re here.  Why are you here?  Why come to us?”

“Because you kind of-” there was a pause, a horrendous crash like the whole dishwasher rack had been torn out.  “You guys gave birth to me in the first place, and I wasn’t sure where to go.”

“Kanzi, you-”

“Kenzie.”

“Kanzi!” he raised his voice, angry now.  “Stop talking back.  You left.  You told stories and we were sentenced probation, community service, classes, we spent time in jail.”

“I told the truth.”

“You left, and once we got past the legal hassles, things were better,” Julien’s voice came through.  “We were happy.  You- I have to imagine you were happier, wherever you ended up.  Call it- I don’t know.  We’re a bad fit, us two and you.  Separating us was a good thing, the hell we went through with jail and court aside.”

“I’m in therapy now, I’ve worked on my stuff.”

“I don’t- I can hear your mother coming.  This is- it’s so stressful, Kanzi.  Every day is stressful.”

“Are you going to stop her?  Stop this?  Protect me?”

“Are you going to leave?”

“No.”

“Then no.  You’re going to keep being you, and she’s going to keep being her, and I wouldn’t survive ten days trying to get between-”

A bang, door against wall.

Then noises, sounds of struggle.  The sharp slapping sound of fist against flesh.

Gary looked away from the phone Lookout was holding up.

“Look, please.  Listen,” Lookout said.

The sound repeated.  Three, four, five times.  The arm that was holding up the phone wasn’t steady, and it drew a figure eight in the air with the phone, almost, to the point that if there was anything new happening on the screen, I doubted Gary would be able to track it with his eyes.

“You can falsify evidence,” Gary said.  His voice was tense.  “That’s a big part of today’s episode.”

The sounds continued, scuffling.  More hits on flesh.  Kenzie’s voice with each one, indistinct.

“Stop that,” Gary said.  “Please and thank you.  You made your point.”

“Has she?” I asked.  “It’s pretty major for her to show you this.”

In front of me, Lookout shrugged, still holding up the phone.  The sounds continued to play.  She held her position like she was trying to stand still, but the waver in her hand failed her.

“It’s manipulative and it’s questionable!” Gary said, with an anger above that which was warranted.

In the face of that anger, Lookout backed up a bit.  The phone dropped to her side.  Video still played on the screen.

“I assume you’re going to try to get them to put this on the air?”

“No,” Lookout said.  “I don’t really want it to be seen by millions of people.  That’s not the me I want to be in front of that many people.”

“That’s a nice way of putting it,” Swansong said.

“Thank you.”

“For the last time, excuse me,” Gary said.  “I would like to get my thoughts in order.”

“If you leave and you ignore this,” Swansong said, “Then you’re no more a man than Julien Martin.  You’re worse.  You’re the kind of person who empowers the Julien Martins of the world.”

He opened the door and walked through.

“Be sure to let them know where you’re going,” I said, after him.  “They want to be able to find you as soon as they need you.”

He ignored me, walking away.

I walked over and closed the door.

“Dickbag,” Natalie said.

Why had I wanted to say that?  Pettiness?  To make sure he knew he wasn’t supposed to be walking away like that?  To inject some civility, however backhanded, and ensure he knew we weren’t wholly bad guys?

I wasn’t sure.  I looked over at Lookout, who was exchanging murmured words with Swansong.  She walked over to Capricorn, who had been largely absent from the conversation.

He was staring up at the television screen.  The show had started, our part wasn’t up for a bit, and he was following it with an almost unblinking stare, his jaw tense, fist clenched at one side.

“Capricorn?” I asked.

“I thought someone should watch, make sure we knew what we were going into,” Byron said, in a voice that was quieter and softer than his usual.  “And if I looked away, I’d do something stupid.”

“Okay,” I said.  “That makes a lot of sense.”

He looked at Lookout, who drew a step nearer, and reached out, hand on her shoulder.  He pulled her close, until her helmet knocked against the armor at the side of his body, and he used one arm to hug her against the side of his body, tight.

She nodded, like she was answering a question.

The show was playing out with the narration of a true crime documentary.  Laying out the facts.  Kidnapped, tortured, no justice.  It wasn’t Lookout’s case, but as images lined up, showing victims with faces blurred out, silhouettes identifiable as her parents appeared.

A part of me ached to check online, make sure that the sky wasn’t falling while we were tied up with this.  We had too few people with far too little in the way of effective experience keeping an eye on things.  Chris and Sveta were handling the organization.

That part of me didn’t have any motive force.  I watched the episode, steeled myself.  More words appeared on the screen.  A golden flash.  A silhouette.

The door opened, and Kaylar the staff guest organizer poked her head into the room.

“You’re on after the next commercial break,” she said.  “Come on, hurry.  Last chance to spruce up.  Get your microphones.”

Microphones clipped to our belts, my own threaded up through my armor like I tended to do my earbuds, we made our way into the hallway.  Swansong couldn’t wear one, so Lookout lagged behind, fiddling with her phone and periodically tapping at the projector plate.  As Capricorn and Lookout caught up with me, I put a hand on Lookout’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze.  She put her hand over mine.

The hallway, mundane and ordinary, but for a high ceiling that extended up to the reflective glass above the front section of the building.

Then the studio.  The energy of a few hundred people in their seats, all chatting as commercials played, the set, the music, the iffy curtains that kept us out of view until our reveal.  People had spotted us and were pointing, leaning toward one another to whisper and to get a better peek.

There was a buzzer, a red light, and conversation stopped.

Televisions throughout the area and screens on various cameras all showed the episode resuming.  A flash of gold, a silhouette, and then the word: Answers.

The distortion of voice and bass with our proximity to speakers made words almost unintelligible.  A hand gave me a light push.  Kaylar.

And I stepped past the curtain, into the studio, wearing my A- costume with my makeup at an A and my hair done to an A+.  I stood tall and walked with confidence, my hand at Lookout’s shoulder.

Swansong, an image, not the real her, made her debut in a way.  A++ in poise, and that counted for enough.

And Capricorn, Byron up to this point, turned into Tristan to ‘transform’, to drop armor helmet, and to be presentable.  He’d done his hair differently, almost but not quite making the two sides of the parts into horn-like lengths, and he wore a mask that left his mouth free.

The hot lamps and spotlights of the studio left me momentarily blind.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Beacon – 8.9

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

I hurried over to my computer.  The setup I’d put together wasn’t really set up for a PR crisis, especially one revolving around us.  Some people had put in requests for info, with stuff wedged into the wrong fields.  Others had emailed us directly.

I shut my laptop.  That particular mutant could be tackled later.

“Kenzie-” I said.

“I didn’t do it,” Kenzie said, her eyes wide.  “I’ve been good.”

“I can count ten things you did that aren’t ‘good’ in the last week, and that’s without trying,” Chris said.

“I did?”

“Breaking into secured systems, watching people, tapping into phone lines…”

I glanced at Natalie.

“Oh.  That.  I was thinking more about the personal, relationship stuff,” Kenzie said.

“I’d be much more concerned with breaking the law,” Natalie said.  “I need to get caught up, apparently.  How much of this did you get permission for?  What secured systems?”

“I might be a little too frazzled to remember all of them,” Kenzie said.

“No documentation?” Chris asked.  “On top of having no timestamps?”

“Ease up,” Ashley told him, stern. “Not the time.”

“Sure.”

“Nobody’s given me a number, or even a ballpark estimate, for these breaches,” Natalie said, with a bit more incredulity in her voice.  “Someone explain.  Please.”

“It was in the interest of tracking the Cheit attackers and maintaining lines of communication with Ashley and Rain,” I said.  “We talked about some of this.”

Some was pretty concerning.  I was on the fence about that some,” Natalie said.  “If there was more than some, I’d have put my foot down.”

“Come, use my laptop,” I said.  “Look at my notes.”

I had to pause to open my laptop, a little annoyed that Natalie was making this a point now.  Too much to juggle, to then have her demanding attention and focus.

I appreciated it on a level, but still.

I lowered my voice, aware I was missing conversation between Kenzie and Ashley in the background as Natalie and I leaned over my computer.  I kept my voice quieter, “I detailed it as best I could here.  This is where we’re at, these are the justifications and issues.  Open-bracket-N-closed-bracket for Natalie, where we consulted.  Our peek into the prison’s inner workings is the worst breach, it caught us by surprise, but we consulted you after, we’re punishing her by restricting visits, and the Wardens and the Guild have signed off on the general thrust of this.”

“I’ll read,” Natalie said, terse.

I nodded, standing straight and looking back at the group, my computer and Natalie behind me.

“How does this affect us, if it’s the breaches, monitoring, and whatever?” Tristan asked.

“We can deal with it,” I said.  “We got ahead of the portal thing- we didn’t stop it entirely, but we kept it from being worse.  A lot of people were hooked into that.  The public would forgive the approach if we could prove results, I think, especially given Kenzie’s age and the bigger situation.”

“That’s optimistic,” Rain said.

“The number one priority-” I started.

“Is Kenzie,” Ashley cut in.

“Is- Yes,” I finished.  “Laws are vague, we’re helping.  They’re not going to burn her at the stake.  At worst, it’s a headache.”

“I’ll grudgingly agree with that,” Tristan said.  “Total agreement on the headache part.”

“We’ll help you, Kenzie,” I said.  “And I think if it’s that, we can deal.  If we get ahead of it and show we can do basic PR and that it won’t bounce back on anyone who interacts with us, the others will relax.

She smiled and nodded.

“Because it needs to be said, there are second, third priorities.  This situation with Goddess is explosive and dangerous.  Cheit is dangerous.  We absolutely cannot afford for this to tie our hands or we end up with an international incident, a prison break, or a potential enemy of Gimel recruiting a mess of our most dangerous and depraved parahumans to use against us.”

“Or all of the above,” Rain said.

“Yes,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” Kenzie said.

“You don’t even know what crime or incident you’re apologizing for,” Chris said.  “Do we know what it is?”

“Yeah.  I’m sorry.  What am I sorry for?” Kenzie asked.

“I’m still figuring that out,” Tristan said.  He’d just dialed a number on his phone and was holding it to his ear.  “But your parents are in on it.”

“Oh,” she said.  She looked at me.

“How many things does that narrow it down to?” Chris asked.

“A few,” Kenzie answered, before giving a short laugh and smiling. “I’m kind of caught off guard.  Um.  The most obvious one is the… parental blackmail?  Is that the right word?”

“Extortion,” I said.

“Oh, a crime they might go after you for,” Chris said.

Kenzie looked at me.  “Is it?”

I winced.  “Harder to dismiss than the breaches, depending.”

“I’ve noticed how Kenzie asks Victoria for input on it being a problem instead of trusting me,” Chris was quiet.

“Feeling left out?” Kenzie asked, the smile dropping from her face as she took on a more serious, somber expression.  “I trust you, and I’m touched that you want to help.”

“Uh huh.  Regretting I said anything now.”  Much like how Tristan was on the phone, having retreated to the far corner of the room, blocking out our conversation with one hand on his other ear, Chris was turning to his laptop.

“I could go to jail,” Kenzie said it as if it was just dawning on her.  She sat back in her chair, the adjustable metal parts shaking audibly with the force of the movement.  Her eyes widened, and she turned to look at Ashley’s projection.

“No,” Ashley said, pre-emptively.

Kenzie’s eyes widened.  “I could go to your jail.”

“Oh geez,” Rain said.

“No,” Ashley repeated.  “It’s not worth it.”

“Silver linings, though.”

“You’d be put in another area, on another schedule.  You’d be close but probably wouldn’t ever interact.  And that’s if they put someone as young as you in that prison,” I said.  “I think they put most minors in the Wardens HQ, like Bonesaw.”

“Aww.  But it’s not there anymore, so maybe-”

“We’ll do everything we can to keep you out of jail,” Ashley said.  To the rest of the group, she said, “Victoria and I talked about this being something the Martins might do.”

I shook my head.  “It seemed like something that would come up as part of the tribunal.  It’s pretty easy to dodge being put away if you can come up with any excuses or reasonable doubt.  But they went with it.  When they didn’t, I figured they wouldn’t.”

“Maybe it’s something else?” Kenzie asked.  “I didn’t really talk about what I was doing with them, and they didn’t ask.  It’s not like they could go in my room without me knowing and find notes or anything to use against me, either.”

“I have no idea,” I said.  My eyes roved over the whiteboards.  “We’ll wait for Tristan to finish his call.  If it doesn’t pan out, I’ll call some people.”

“I’m looking into stuff too,” Chris said.

Kenzie smiled.  “Okay.  Thanks guys.”

I frowned.  “Do you want to step outside?  Chat in private?  Or ask something?  Do you need anything?”

“I’m good,” she said, smiling lightly.  “It’s stupid.”

“What’s stupid?” Ashley asked.

“Like, surprise, parents!  And I feel exactly like I’m eight years old again and I hear the car door close outside, and… afternoon cartoons are done.  Cool babysitter goes home.  I’d go to my room to do homework and stay out of the way.  And then, you know- I talked about this in the group, but then I end up either trying to be perfect or I’m not perfect and I’m anxious about it, but it’s never a good feeling.  I wasn’t perfect here.”

“Nope,” Chris cut in, his focus on his computer.

Kenzie gave him the finger, but he didn’t see.

“Perfect is a pretty high standard,” I said.

“Yeah,” she answered, nodding.  “Normally I’m okay, and I was okay before when I knew I had a say and they were scared, but…”

She trailed off.

“Victoria,” Ashley said, her voice soft.  “Make those calls you were talking about.  Get answers, because it doesn’t look like Tristan’s having any luck.  I’ll talk with Kenzie.  It’s all I’m good for right now.”

I glanced at Kenzie, and saw her nod.

Okay.

“We’ll reach out to everyone we already talked to or were scheduled to talk to, same way we divided it up beforehand,” I said.  “If they’re out, find out why, get details.  If they’re still in, we might need their help.  Eyes on the scene, looking out for Cheit.”

“Makes sense,” Ashley said.

“Let Tristan know, let Sveta know in case I don’t run into her.  I’m stepping outside.”

“Good luck,” Rain said.

I stepped out onto the fire escape, letting the door close behind me.

Between Natalie and the other members of the group, it was too much to balance.  We’d figure out what was going on and we’d tackle it, but a conversation with that many people in it wasn’t a good place for me to get my thoughts in order, even when some were quiet.

I could have pulled out my phone and made a call, but I didn’t.  The sky was dark overhead, the angle of the sun in the late afternoon made it so it didn’t peek through in fleeting slats and beams as it had earlier.  The wind was only moderate, if insistent, and the city was eerily quiet for the daylight hours.  If there was construction ongoing, the wind consumed the sound.

How many heroes were out there?  How many teams were doing what the Major Malfunctions were doing, settling into a territory where jurisdiction wasn’t contested and just subsisting?  No interest or willingness to join other teams, no clues about where the villains were, no information with which to equip or empower themselves.

I’d pushed for this network because it made a fundamental sense to me.  I knew it was an uphill fight to get it established.  I knew there were outright nightmares coming, when groups with views and perspectives as opposed as the Shepherds and Advance Guard ended up butting heads.  I knew that.  I was wholly aware, both from real life experience and from parahuman studies, that any grouping of capes was going to be a dramafest at best, an implosion most of the time, and an implosion with collateral damage at worst.

But I’d wanted to try.

Fucking damn it.

Five minutes.  Five minutes to get my thoughts in order, and center myself.  I checked my phone for the time, so I could measure out those minutes.

Three missed calls.  The cell coverage was so spotty my phone couldn’t seem to decide if I had a connection to the greater network or not.  I didn’t check the missed calls, and instead focused on the signal.

Up.  Away from things, to a point where I could see more of the city.

Not that long ago, I’d mused on how I needed to stay connected, because flying could mislead.  This was me seeking out the disconnection.

I let the five minutes pass, and I checked my missed calls.

A press of the button dialed the number and initiated the call.  I took a minute to fish out the earbud and plug it in.

“Victoria,” my mom said.

“You called?”

“I had a chat with Tristan on the phone.  I was worried by how I left things, I gave perfunctory answers, because he clearly wanted to move on and call other people to confirm.  Given how tense things have been between us-”

She didn’t finish the sentence.  Was it meant to be a question, without the inflection?  Asking if things were tense?

“Yeah,” I said.

“I hope you know that dad and I saying we don’t want to cooperate until this is resolved isn’t because of you.”

“Do you know what this is?”

“Allegations against your youngest team member.  They’re doing a news segment tonight.  The people involved are buzzing- they were asking some others for input on the legality.  Protecting identities, not divulging enough that someone could find out her civilian details.  But they’re bringing the parents in.  The news crews took cameras to the holding prison to record footage or testimony.”

“You told this to Capricorn?” I asked.  He’d said something about the segment, and the involvement of the parents.    Was it from my mom?

“Ninety percent of it.  The rest is inconsequential.  Can I help?”

“Without putting your own necks on the line, rep-wise?” I asked.

“If you ask me to, I will.  Your father will.  But only if you need it.  Are you upset?”

I understood the dynamic they labored under- they were part of a disparate team, but if they crossed the line or went against the vast majority, there was a chance they’d be kicked out.

And I’d be asking them to do it for what?  A bit of firepower, when we didn’t have an active enemy to aim it at?

“No.  I’m not upset.  It makes sense.”

“Good.  I liked Tristan’s questions and approach.  He has a good mind for the PR stuff.  He’s attractive, stylish, clever about some of these things.  Keep him close, Victoria.  He’s an asset.”

“He’s a friend.  If that last bit was you trying to subtly maneuver us into dating, think again.  That’s not going to happen.”

“It wasn’t.  I see merit, there.  Nothing more, nothing less.”

I nodded, annoyed and restless.

“We had a similar experience, back in the beginning.  A team with all the promise in the world, people were talking about us, the public was supportive, the law, the heroes…”

“And then Auntie Jess died.  Murdered.  New Wave lost its momentum.”

“It lost what it initially had.  I’d like to believe that if things had been left alone, if we hadn’t had to deal with the horror that came with Leviathan or after, we might have found our way back to prominence.  All it would take would be the right event, all of us coordinated in how we’d approached it.  Ideally, you would have all been over eighteen, and we could have gone all out in the public eye.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond.  It wasn’t that like my mom to be so impractical and out there, talking hypothetical situations.

Had Leviathan been that right event, with all of us not coordinated enough?  Too many of us had died.

I suppressed a sigh.  I wondered how my mother’s mind worked and I didn’t want to know, at the same time.

I could barely remember Auntie Jess.  The memory was occluded by the very clear distinction of a sniveling kid in a courtyard- someone who’d been looking to earn his stripes as a member of our local racist troupe.  He’d cried, begged, and asked for his dad to save him when the pronouncement had come from the court.  I could remember seeing him and being disgustedly disappointed in him.  That someone as awesome as my aunt had been killed by someone as far from awesome as him.

No- no.  That hadn’t been my opinion.  It had been something my mom had said that had struck so close to home that it felt like my own idea.

My opinion had been a quiet certainty that his craven behavior in court would at least ensure that he didn’t get what he wanted.  He wouldn’t get his initiation into the gang if he acted like that.  And I’d been wrong.  He was young, he hadn’t been tried as an adult, and he’d gotten out in short order.  He’d gone straight to Empire Eighty-Eight and been welcomed with open arms.

Auntie Jess- she hadn’t been a true aunt- Uncle Mike hadn’t gotten around to marrying her.  She was a pretty, dark-haired woman in the photographs we had too few of – good straight-on images of her face being rare.  She was foggy memories amid holidays and other focuses.  I could remember bedtime stories with- with Amy and me on either side of her.  My most recent memory of her was all of us in the backyard, Eric, Amy and I trying to do a thing chaining water dart guns together, like Eric had seen in a video.  He’d been insistent we’d make it work, and his dad was to be the victim of the barrage.  Auntie Jess had saved us by grabbing one of the water dart guns and starting a war.

There’d been a break in the conversation, but it lingered in a way that made me think my mom was lost in memory too.

I was trying to formulate a response when she spoke up again.  “The media hounded us, after Fleur died.  We had a lot of discussions on how New Wave should handle it.  We were disheartened, heartbroken, tired.  We decided to let the news cycle roll over while we mourned.  It made sense.  By the books, it was how we were supposed to handle the public relations side of it.  As a family, we needed to take care of each other.”

“Yeah.  It makes sense.”

“All the sense in the world,” she said, in a different tone.  Wistful.

I sighed.

“I heard that,” she said.

“Things were coming together.  I’m worried about timing.  It’s occupying us at a time when we really have bigger things to worry about.”

“I remember you mentioning some of those things.  Is it a distraction?  When masterminds are in play, you can’t assume it’s a coincidence.  If you’re doing something big and there’s a wrench in the works…”

She left the statement at that, open ended, inviting a response.

“It’s not out of the question.”

“Who do you know that would employ that kind of distraction?”

“Everyone?  Any major player?  Tattletale?  If it’s a distraction, we could ignore it.  Let it go, like how you guys ignored the media and focused on mourning.”

I was putting it forward as a hypothetical.  I didn’t believe it, myself.  We couldn’t ignore it, when it was potentially character assassination of a child.

There was a pause on the phone.

“Did I lose you?” I asked.

“I’m wrestling with a thought.  Do you have others to call?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You can hang up, and we’ll update you the moment we have any information that could help,” my mother said.

“I’m curious what that thought of yours was,” I said.

“I don’t want to butt my head in where it isn’t wanted.  Unsolicited advice?”

I thought about it.

“I’ll take whatever advice I can get,” I said.

Below me, Sveta had arrived.  I would have waved, but she wouldn’t have seen me.  She pulled herself up to the fire escape, metal limbs clanging on metal slats, and then let herself inside.

“Don’t make the same mistake we did.  If you’re trying to build something, defend the turf it’s founded on.  Don’t let others decide what the narrative is.  Don’t fight it- that’s the path of cowards and tyrants, and you don’t want to appear to be either of those things.”

“Ignore the rules?  Go on the offensive?”

“Don’t give them ammunition.  Do show you won’t fold.”

“It’s dangerous to do that, given the current climate.”

I expected argument, retort, elaboration.

“Yes,” she said.  “It is.”

Only confirmation.

“Good luck,” she said.  “We’re available if you need us.”

“Would you be willing to help with something that isn’t in the public eye?  No backsplash if this all goes wrong.”

“What something?”

“Surveillance,” I said.  “And for the record, it feels really weird to ask for my mom to conduct surveillance.”

“It felt weird to tell my fourteen year old daughter to break a man’s arm, once upon a time,” she said.  “We adapt.  I’ll do it, invite your dad, we’ll swap shifts.”

“I’ll email you the particulars,” I said.

We left it at that.  The wind whipped at my hair and hood as I floated in the air.

I called the Paint Fumes team, not that that was their real name, but I had to call them something.  Tempera was out.  Fume Hood was in.

The Major Malfunctions were in.  They had no idea that there was even a welling PR issue, and when I explained it, they seemed to have some difficulty understanding why it would change anything for them.

I wasn’t sure if I should send Fume Hood with their group for the extra backup or split things up.  It was a weird combination to imagine.

I landed on the fire escape, then opened the door.

All conversation stopped.  In the corner of my vision, Kenzie hit a key, and an image disappeared from the wall.

“You’re back,” Rain said.  “That was fast.”

They’d thought I was gone?  That I’d flown off to talk to people in person, maybe?

“I went up, not away,” I said.  I couldn’t help but notice the awkwardness in the air, the lingering silence.  “Is there a problem?”

“No problem,” Chris said.

I looked at Sveta.  She gave me an uneasy smile.

“You’re all acting weird.  Paranoia makes me think it’s a stranger effect?”

“No,” Rain said.  “If it was, Ashley and I wouldn’t be affected.”

I nodded.

The cape geek in me wanted to say probably not.  But there were stranger effects that were able to be passed on with recordings and written words.  Rare, but they existed.  Blindside from the community center attack, I was pretty sure, could turn cameras away or black them out.  There were hypnotic singers who transmitted their effect through digital devices.

People were looking between each other.  There seemed to be a consensus as just about all eyes turned to Sveta.

Not Natalie’s, for one thing.  She looked about as confused as I felt.

But it seemed Sveta had been decided by unspoken agreement to be the one to handle this.

“It’s mundane,” Sveta said.  “Kind of.  Can we change the subject?”

“The sudden change or lack of subject is why I’m confused,” I said, wary.

“Please?” she asked.  “Don’t make a big deal of this?  Count it as coming from me, speaking as a friend?”

“Does it tie into Kenzie’s situation, Cheit, Goddess, or any of the things we’re trying to juggle here?”

“Not in a way that impacts our mission, I’m pretty sure,” she said.  She had to look to others for confirmation.

I swallowed hard.

It looked like she genuinely didn’t know what to say or do.

Chris was staring me down, eyebrows furrowed.  Tristan- he looked almost casual, thumbs hooked into his pockets, hands flat against the sides of his thighs.  Kenzie- hard to read.  No smiles, at least.  Rain kept glancing at the blank spot on the wall where the projected screen had been.  Ashley looked like she was busy thinking.

No, Ashley was impatient.  it was hard to tell when her body wasn’t giving the right body language, just default poses and stances.  Her face, though.  Irritated?  Agitated?  Restless?

“Okay,” I said.

“Just like that?” Chris asked.

“My parents will handle some surveillance.  Fume Hood and the Malfunctions will as well, but they’re novices when it comes to that.”

“That’s reassuring,” Tristan said.

“We can get others,” I said.  “Tap the teams, figure out who doesn’t care about PR.”

“The good ones do,” Tristan said.  “I called, on your suggestion.  They told me your idea of how we move forward, so I reached out.  I only got one of my four teams to agree, and they aren’t totally committed.”

I nodded.  I’d somehow figured mine would be more loyal – not because I was anything special, but because there was a lot more personal investment in it.  I outlined the next step in my greater plan, “We’ll scratch together something to hold down the fort, and then we handle the current PR crisis.  Once it’s handled, those who flew the coop should come back to roost.”

“You’re going to let this go?” Chris asked.

“Hm?” I made a sound.

“I don’t think you’re sincere, saying you’re going to ignore this whole thing here, just because Sveta asked nicely.”

“We have other things to focus on.”

“We do,” Tristan said.  “Don’t cause trouble, Chris.”

“I only kinda-sorta agreed to this because I thought she wouldn’t go for it.”

Ashley looked away.

I was noting Ashley’s silence.  She seemed annoyed.  Chris… he was baffled, if I had to put my finger on it, which was a very different thing from Natalie’s confusion.

Those were the three who looked more bothered by this scene.

“I trust Sveta,” I said.  “And I trust you guys as a group.  Whatever the other teams are reporting- you’re keeping it from me.  Okay.  Because I trust you guys, I’ll trust you’re doing it for the right reasons.”

“It’s weird,” Chris said.

Chris,” Tristan said.

“It is, but I’m going to go with it,” I told Chris.  “Because I trust them.  There was someone in the past who told me something.  I ignored them, I gave them a hug.  Everything fell apart.  My best friend tells me not to pry?  Fine.  I’ll listen.”

“Best friend.  That’s so sweet,” Kenzie said.

Sveta didn’t look like she was super happy.  Guilty?  Something else?

I put it out of mind.  My concern was more in the realm that I really wanted to talk to Sveta about other things, and now it might seem like I was trying to butter her up with gifts or attention.  It was just so hard to actually sit her down and have a conversation.  We kept getting interrupted or distracted.

“First problem is the PR issue,” Tristan said.  “If we can’t fix that, it’s impossible to do anything else.”

“We get out ahead of it,” I said.

“Solving one quasi-illegal or illegal issue with more extortion,” Ashley said, her tone dry.  “Naturally.”

“Nobody said extortion,” Chris answered.  “That’s really interesting, that you immediately think of that.”

“It’s sarcasm, you oaf.  Figure out a form that helps you figure it out and spend a month or two in it.  You have a lot of catching up to do.”

There was an insult in the first sentence and a harsh phrasing throughout, but Chris didn’t seem to mind.  He even smiled a little.

“I have some info,” Chris said.  “I did some searching.”

“It’s really interesting to see which times get you most into things,” Rain said.  “They tend to be the worst times.”

Intriguing times,” Chris said.  “Which are some of the worst because powers are both intriguing and they’re fountains of suck.”

“What info?” I asked.

He looked at his computer.  “One of the TV studios owned by a Mr. Buckner is handling this whole thing.  It’s going out on the radio first and then depending on whether it’s a success or not, they’ll televise a continuation.  People drive home from work in the late hour, they catch it, they listen, and then they get home and turn on the television.”

“How did you get this?” I asked.

“I have like, forty online accounts.  A lot are connected, but if I’m careful not to post too often, I can build up a persona and people accept me into their communities.  I have something like four accounts in four very different sub-communities.”

“Because you deceive people about who you are?” Sveta asked.

“Sure,” Chris said.  “It works.  The television studio had employees doing research on Parahumans Online.  I ask Lookout and… she confirmed it.”

Which was code for ‘she broke in and stole info’. Natalie didn’t seem to have been fooled by it.

“Why forty accounts?” I asked.

“Fog of war.  It confuses investigators online, makes my trail harder to follow.  Algorithms track everything you do, so I break it all up.  One set of names for one site, another for another site.  It lets me narrow down what came from who, if I get an email to one account or another.”

“Seems unnecessarily complicated,” Tristan said.

“Don’t know what to tell you,” Chris said.  “Except that it worked for us in this instance, so stop getting on my case.”

“It’s good,” Tristan said.  “Question is, what do we do about it?  Mug ’em?  Tell them to leave it alone?  Ignore them?  I should stress that if we’re doing anything in costume, you’re going to have Byron as a tagalong, not me.”

“We shouldn’t ignore them,” I said.  “If they’re intending to spread lies-”

“They could spread inconvenient truths and it would be bad,” Ashley said.

“Urg,” Kenzie said.

“All the more reason,” I said.  “When is the show?”

“Three hours,” Chris said.

“We could try getting on the show.”

“I asked,” Tristan said.  “They don’t want us.  That’s our big issue.  It’s a hit piece, probably aimed at Kenzie by her parents, and it’s going to be organized so they can leverage the fear or whatever that they play up.  Kenzie’s parents get to discredit the primary witness against them, and there’s no competing viewpoint to screw with that or muddy the waters.”

“Spooky,” Kenzie said.

Sveta rubbed Kenzie’s shoulder with a prosthetic hand.

“Stupid that preys on fears gets a lot of traction,” Rain said.  “If you want airtime, you need to offer something stupider or more nonthreatening than what they’ve got in line.”

“No,” I said  “I refuse to believe that.  That’s not what this ecosystem is about.”

“Post Gold Morning?” Rain asked.  “I might have been interacting with a biased pool of people, but I feel like it weighs pretty heavy on us.  It breaks people a bit.  People are so overwhelmed by the end of the world and an entirely new universe that they can’t even think straight.  Someone tells them how to think?  They jump on it.”

I frowned.

“I’ve seen that fear and anger,” Sveta said.  “Against case fifty-threes.   By them.”

Fear and anger.  I spoke, “I want to go on the show with our most stylish, best PR people on the team.  If we offer the right thing, maybe we can swing it… like if we take the next two hours to ask the other teams if it’s okay, and then we put ourselves forward as the sacrificial goats.”

“The goats?” Tristan asked.

“We can’t reach everyone,” Sveta said.

“No,” I agreed.  “But at this stage, if someone comes to us and they’re angry about us talking about things they wanted to leave alone… let them be angry.  If they don’t matter, we deal.  If they do matter, we tell them the truth.  That there’s too much at stake these days, and they need to step up or get out of the way.  A small convenience isn’t worth everyone being in the dark.”

“You’re putting out a fire by dropping a bonfire on it,” Rain said.

I glanced at the blank spot on the wall.

Yeah, I didn’t want to give up.  I didn’t want this team to be an idea that existed for a fleeting moment, then existed as a haunting echo thereafter.  Good moments?  Sure.  Some celebrity, some success, money, whatever.  But the momentum had been lost.

I wanted to keep the momentum.  There was a need among people, and capes were aching for unity and collaboration.  They wanted security.  That could be granted.  If we were going to go up against giants, we had to swing big and swing high.

I nodded slowly.  I clenched my fist and rubbed momentarily at the spot on my arm where the bullet had gone through.  “Bonfire.  Yeah, I like that analogy.  If they want to burn us, let’s show them just how bright we can get.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Beacon – 8.8

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Our group was splitting up, each person assigned a task.  Sveta attended to the outcast-types, and Kenzie was even communicating with a group online, while Chris looked over her shoulder.  Rain or Ashley would sign off on the messages before they were sent, just to head off the worst issues.

I found myself wincing a bit at the possibilities- each of those four had their issues.  Tristan had seemed confident that they’d balance each other out.  I wasn’t so confident, but I’d held my tongue.  It was one group they were communicating with, and it was better to know sooner than later if there was a communication issue with those four members of Breakthrough.

My destination was a tent city.  Most in the tent cities had already departed for more secure accommodations, but new people were coming in regularly, and there was a stubborn holdout.  As I flew over, I could see the efforts that were being made to patch the problem.  Rigid black sheets of insulation were being laid against the sides of tents with yellow fabric, tents were being moved together and connected, and equipment was being brought in- truckloads of what might have been heaters or furnaces.

It was like a game of musical chairs, but the winners moved on to the next room, new people filed in from outside, and the end of the game loomed closer with every passing day.  Whoever was in these particular seats come winter was going to have a rough time of it.  Tents weren’t houses and this area was going to be as bleak as fuck when the snow and food shortages came full swing.

Overhead, the sky was overcast with heavy black clouds, sunlight cracking through.  The movement of air through portals was generating the flow to keep the clouds rolling, the cracks appearing and disappearing, casting down slices of light before they closed up again.

The landmark I was looking for was a building that looked like a cube.  Trucks were parked around it, getting their fuel from large drums.  Rather than construction uniforms, the workers were wearing civilian gear, with only vests to mark them as anything different.

I dropped out of the sky, landing on the ‘road’, where the passage of trucks and feet had worn away the grass.  A gap in the clouds overhead provided a gap for the light to shine through, sweeping over the area.  Had I seen that light in a movie, I might have imagined it was an alien spacecraft or a rapturing sweeping up people.  This, though, it was aimless.  The people weren’t carried up and away, here.

I spotted the teen Major Malfunctions before they spotted me.  I took a second to take stock.  Two girls and a boy, ranging from sixteen to eighteen years of age.

The oldest or tallest member of the group was a girl with a dress-like costume that hugged her body, extending all the way to the ground.  I’d come across some of the individual pieces of clothing she’d used to put her costume together in my browsing of stores and magazines- and they weren’t clothes I would’ve looked at and thought ‘costume’.  A dress in charcoal gray that hugged the body and legs down to a taper at the ankles, exploding into a poof of rolling yellow fabric around the feet.  She might have bought two of the dresses, because the same ruffles had been borrowed from elsewhere to form the voluminous sleeves with their own yellow explosions of fabric.  Her hands poked through those explosions, clad in black gloves.

The dress was worn over a turtleneck, which went with a ski mask that covered eye sockets, nose, ears, and chin.  In effect, fabric covered her from just below her eye level to the ground.  Yellow-orange eye makeup, bold slashes of black for the eyebrows and nicely done black hair completed the look.

The guy was the tinker of the group, it looked like- and it was good they had one, given the ‘malfunction’ part of the group’s name.  He would have been between the two girls in height, except for his suit.  I hesitated to call it power armor, exactly.  Power armor implied armor that was heavy enough that it needed machine power to move- remove that power and the tinker was stuck.  The stuck part probably held true, but this guy had no armor.

No, if I had to come up with a term for this guy, I would have called it an agility frame.  It didn’t thicken his body, but stretched it out, with an mechanical extension adding two feet to his legs, long mechanical gloves that started at his wrists extending the arms much the same way, and a lightweight set of bars and discs providing the bare minimum of strength to hoist what looked like a syringe filled with maybe ten gallons of pink fluid.  The syringe’s needle wasn’t the only mount at the front of the fluid’s case, and various other tools or attachments surrounded the front end of the cylinder, all in metal of varying shades, glosses, and textures.

The frame was made on a budget, given how the spray paint had settled on different pieces in different ways, and it was almost buckling between the guy’s lean weight and the weight of the cylinder, to the point that the line of mechanical foot to calf to thigh formed a curve, not a straight line.  His mask was a simple one, a circular plate of metal with eyeholes cut out, worn over a hood of something rubbery that clung to his head.  The eyes glowed pink.

The girl with the dress so narrow it seemed to bind her ankles together and the frame that threatened to snap explosively under its own weight made me anxious.  The third member of the group, at least, seemed a little bit more sane.  She wore a flat-top cap with a brim that overshadowed a simple domino mask, her auburn hair was wild, and her costume was a cute variation on a military outfit, all in glittery baby blue and a fabric with some stretch.  I suspected it was something like a dance uniform for a particular number or event that had then been claimed from thrift.  A stylized music note sat on her breast and the front of her cap where badges or medals might otherwise be.

Which wasn’t to say it wasn’t cute or cohesive.  These guys had apparently spent years without much luck on the villain hunting front, but they’d at least spent the time to find costumes that were pretty darn good for the slapdash sort.  That her costume was simple and effective was a point for her, in particular.

She was laughing a lot as she talked to the others – and there was something about the timbre of her laugh that made me wonder.  A very kid laugh.

People had noticed my arrival, and as caught up as the three were in their own discussion, they caught on that others were looking at me.

The youngest one jogged over.  The oldest moved by sliding herself along the ground- like a chess piece might move, or flight that couldn’t lift her off the ground.

And the frame- it was last to start moving my way, but first to arrive, by only a second or two.  It lurched, lunging a few steps, putting one leg out forward, letting the leg telescope somewhat with springs clearly at work as suspension absorbed the frame’s full weight, wobbling like it might give way.  The entire body swayed and shifted to compensate as pink liquid sloshed in the oversized syringe while it proceeded to lurch into motion again.

It made me nervous, on a few fronts, because I couldn’t shake the impression that one of those feet would bend too far, snap, and all of the tense springs within would shotgun out to impale bystanders.  Because he moved like he was in attack mode, and I was the one intruding on their turf.

“Hi!” the sixteen-ish year old girl with the cap said.  “I’m Finale.”

“Hi Finale,” I said, “I’m Victoria, or you can call me Antares.  Either way is fine.”

“That’s Withdrawal,” she said, indicating the guy.  “And that’s Caryatid.  We’re the Major Malfunctions.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.  I extended a hand for her to shake, and she clasped it in two of her own, giving it a firm shake.

Withdrawal had to shuffle the syringe over to one shoulder, balancing it precariously there while he extended a mechanical hand across the four foot gap between him and my hand.  Caryatid was more formal, less unusual, giving me a firm shake.

“Thank you for coming this far out,” Caryatid said, sounding very normal for how rigid and aristocratic her outfit was.

“It’s not an issue,” I said.  “I can fly, so getting here is pretty painless.”

“I’m jealous,” Finale said.  “Flying.

There was something so guileless about the statement that I was left short on responses.  I smiled at her and was about to respond when Withdrawal beat me to it.

“Do you remember what we talked about, when it comes to powers and where they come from?” he asked.

“Yes,” Finale said, with more severity than necessary.  “They usually come from bad days, and sometimes other people’s powers aren’t as good as they seem from…”

“From a distance,” he finished.

“Yes.”

“That’s a good thing to keep in mind,” I said, smiling.  “In my case, though, it’s not a problem.  I like flying.”

She smiled and gave me a thumbs up.

“How is the team network coming along?” Withdrawal asked.  He swung the syringe-cylinder around, resting it on one shoulder, before setting his free hand on Finale’s shoulder.

“People are reporting their movements.  Already had a couple of people ask where others were patrolling and adjust their routes.  Someone called in to ask if we knew anything about a certain villain.  I knew off the top of my head.”

“A bit of a band-aid, to make up for the Wardens being gone?” Caryatid asked.

“Maybe.  That’s not the end goal, though,” I said.  “The Wardens and Protectorate were sponges, trying to soak up everything they could.  We want to empower.”

“A lot of people are feeling powerless right now,” Caryatid said, looking out in the direction of the nearest hole in reality.

“Can we help?” Withdrawal asked.

“How are you guys with stakeouts?”

“Never done one,” Withdrawal said, “But we haven’t done a lot that’s practical.  Caryatid should be pretty good with that, though.”

“How so?” I asked.

“I switch modes,” Caryatid said.  “My other form can only move with my power, and is indestructible with enhanced awareness while still.”

“A breaker form?” I asked.

“I don’t really keep track of the terms,” she said.  “I looked online once and it seemed like everyone was a breaker.”

“Almost everyone is, if you want to be super technical,” I said.  “But that’s power geek talk.  If I’m thinking of the same sites you are, it’s because the template that was copied for individual cape bios had ‘breaker’ included in it by accident.”

Finale turned around, looking up at Withdrawal.  He leaned down, murmuring, “I’ll explain after.”

“Can you show me?” I asked Caryatid.

She slid a couple of feet to one side, looked around to make sure the coast was clear, and then swept one arm in front of her, bowing slightly.  The change was subtle- the lines of her dress became a flow, the parts that clung to her rotated, and the rolls of yellow fabric at the sleeve and around the feet began rising and falling, crashing out around her like waves.  Her hair did much the same, rolling, flowing, taking on motion.

Her face was the biggest change- it looked like butterfly wings, endlessly unfolding, like a multifacted book with pages constantly turning, merging into hairline and the flow of rolls, locks, and loops of hair.

The movement that defined every inch of her slowed, then creaked to a halt.  Waves and loops became hard crags, with faint sounds like stones scraping against one another.  Instead of the pages or wings of her face unfolding, they began folding like origami or a glacier, a construction forming around her head, first around the eyes, telescoping, then moving away from the eyes to the ears, with a kind of conscious focus.

“Yeah, that’s Breaker” I said.  To Finale, I said, “Breakers are one of the labels we use for people with powers.  She changes to this special mode this to use her powers, or to use them at their best.  Breakers will often want to be careful what costumes they pick, because it becomes a part of the form they take.  It looks like Caryatid realized that.”

Finale nodded.

“Breakers are complicated, so a lot of people got confused online.  That’s what I was talking about earlier,” I said.  “Even the people who came up with the system got a bit confused at first.  The important thing is that Caryatid seems to have figured it out.”

“Cary’s smart like that,” Finale said.  She walked over to Caryatid, stepping on a rigid crag of dress hem to get close enough to give her teammate a one-armed hug.

Caryatid’s arm moved very slowly, deliberately, with a break in the rigidity and a resumption of motion that rippled out to the rest of her, based on how much she moved her arm.

“If you’re confused about any of it, I’ll explain after,” Withdrawal said, again, his voice muffled slightly by his mask.

“I think I got it,” Finale said, with a smile.  She gave Caryatid another hug before hopping down.  Behind her, her teammate resumed a more mortal form, everything about her relaxing and transitioning to its regular variant.

I was secretly glad that my lesson had gotten across okay. I would’ve felt a bit put out as a power geek if my best attempt at a simple, clear explanation had fallen flat.

I thought for a second, then said, “One person doing surveillance might be tough.  Do you need to sleep or eat while in that state?  Any long-term consequences?”

“I don’t need to eat like that.  I’ve never tried to stay up all night,” Caryatid’s voice had a note of surprise and idle interest, like it had never occurred to her.

I wasn’t sure how it had never occurred to her in six years, but this team seemed to have its own wavelength.  That was fine- we’d have to adapt to wavelengths.

“If you do, be careful,” I said.  “Go easy on yourself, test the waters carefully.  Sleep is important, and replacing your sleep with your power could leave you feeling mentally off.”

“I will,” she replied, “Thank you for the warning.”

“It might be best to switch off with your team if you do any long stints.”

“I’ll switch off with Withdrawal,” she said.  “If there’s trouble, Finale has our backs.”

“One hundred percent,” Finale said.

I pulled out my phone and scrolled.  I found the ‘mugshot’, for lack of a better word.  A grim looking man with his forehead very clearly divided where the front of it transitioned to the sides of his head.  He might have looked like some renditions of Frankenstein’s monster, but he had a mustache with zero whimsy to it, just a brush on the upper lip.

“This is the person you’ll be keeping an eye on.  The people who attacked the stations might be working with him, or they might be looking to force him to do what they want.  I’ll send you the details, along with his schedule.  Keep an eye out, discreetly if possible.  If there’s weird activity around him, pay attention to that.  Maybe he’s already being watched by someone else.  If he sneaks out at night or goes to meet people, we want to know who.  Get all the information you can.  Pictures, license plates, addresses.”

“Bit of a problem,” Caryatid said.  “I can’t hold bring phones or cameras with me.  They get chewed up by my form.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Withdrawal told her.  To me, he said, “We’ll do it.  You can count on us.”

The conviction and determination caught me off guard.  “This isn’t paid work, I want to make sure you know.”

“I know,” he said.  “We know.  We want to help.”

“If this works out, then we’ll owe you a favor,” I said.

“I don’t even know what we’d do with a favor,” he said.  “Just give us a chance to get put on the map.  We’ll show the world how awesome Finale is.”

“No, don’t.” Finale was suddenly self conscious.  “I’m lame and stupid.”

“No,” Caryatid said.  “No, Finale.”

“But I am.”

“We’ll talk it out,” Caryatid said, gentle and firm.  “But we’ll do it away from company.  If you’ll excuse us?”

“Of course,” I said.

They walked away, talking.  I waited, my hands clasped behind my back.  When Finale gave me a look over one shoulder, I smiled.  It got me a smile back.

“We got in touch online.  All of us got our powers young- it was Caryatid and me at first.  Finale a year later.  We had different names then, obviously,” Withdrawal said.

“Yeah.”

“We were fine, got along great, she was a bit immature when we were ten, eleven, twelve, but we grew up and she… didn’t.  Not mentally.”

“Because of her power?”

He was startled by that, and the sudden shift in position forced one of his legs to take on additional strain.  It wobbled precariously, metal straining on each flex to the extent that I could hear it creak and pop.

“That’s a thing?” he asked, once he’d found his stability.

Geez.  These guys needed to take a powers 101 class.

“Could be,” I said.  “I guess it doesn’t make sense as a thing powers would do.  Powers tend to steer clear of the suicidal, the helpless, the invalid, or people who are limited.  I wouldn’t rule it out one hundred percent, but I wouldn’t blame the power either.”

He nodded.  There was a pause, and then he collapsed into a sitting position, the glass cylinder with its fluid resting on the ground, the syringe point stabbing skyward.  “Don’t scare me like that.”

“Sorry.”

“Just a bad roll of the dice,” he said, quiet.  “I’d take a bullet for either of them.  They deserve better than this, but we spent so long doing nothing at all that getting started became more and more… huge.  We got here and we ended up in the tents, and it let us dip our toes in the water.”

“Did your powers or side effects act up when you were idle?” I asked.

“That’s a thing?”

“Can be.  Not all the time, not even most of the time, despite conventional wisdom.  But it comes up.”

“That explains shit,” he said.  “Oh god.  Why isn’t there a manual or website that walks us through all of this?”

“There was.  It was called the PRT.”

“Couldn’t go to them.  Cary lost her brother when she was young.  Her family got split up.  We were like siblings, us three, we only had each other, really.  We’d go from one of our towns to the other, to check on family and friends, but we were the only ones who always had each other’s backs.  We were worried we’d get taken away from home or broken up, like how her family got broken up.  They reached out a few times, but-”

He stopped there.  He shook his head.

“I’m sorry it was such a hard road.”

“The answers mean a lot,” he said.  “That favor I was supposed to ask of you, I think you did it.  Or- almost.  I have more questions.  After we help, maybe you can give us some answers, as the favor?”

“I can give you some without it being a big favor,” I said.  “I like talking about powers and figuring this stuff out.  But for today, I think, there are things to get squared away.  I have other people to talk to like your group.”

“Why face to face?”

“Because there are some things that you can only see face to face, like how genuine someone is or if they’re interested in the mission.”

“We’re interested,” he said, with barely a breath’s span between my statement ending and his starting.

“I know.  Yes.  And besides that, there’s a need to establish a connection.  A website that you visit a few times a day to log your activities, an email exchange, they’re things that are hard to keep up with after the novelty wears off.  Someone who you see face to face?  It’s harder to ignore them.”

“Establishing trust,” he said.

I landed with more force than was necessary as I returned to the headquarters.  My feet rang on the metal slats of the fire escape, announcing my arrival.

“Where are we?” I asked, as I let myself in.

“Auzure is in.  They’ll send people whenever they aren’t actively doing a job,” Tristan said.  “Money takes priority, Lark says, because he thinks that if he can’t get money, he can’t keep his team running, and it’s a long-term loss.  If we start paying him then he’ll give us priority, even if others are offering a bit more.  I think the numbers he gave were two hundred dollars a day from us, three hundred from the next guy, he’ll help us out.”

“Can we pay him in New Dollars?” I asked.

“Trading dollars.”

I scowled.  Then I blinked, looking at Tristan.  “I thought it was Byron’s turn.”

“I was antsy, I begged.  I owe him time later, now.  He thinks this is important.  We were talking about money, Sveta talked to Weld and Weld talked to his bosses.  They’re going to see what they can funnel our way.  It won’t be a ton, but it’s going to cover rent.”

I looked around the room.  The two members of our group who were in jail were present, as were Tristan, obviously, and Kenzie.

“No Chris?”

“Out.  We messaged him to come back.”

“And Sveta?”

“Stuck around with the people she was talking to.  Ratcatcher and others Ratcatcher has talked to.  They got to talking and she wanted to keep chatting.  She’s on her way back, but she was a good ways away.”

“That’s good.  Rapport,” I said.

“It is.  Except,” Tristan said.  He made except its own statement, with emphasis, glancing at Rain.

“Except I caught Crystalclear during morning yard,” Rain said.  “We got caught up.  Everything was foggy before, and we’re getting a clearer view now.  We found Goddess.”

“Found?” I asked, my interest piqued.

Kenzie opened up a screen, projecting it onto the one wall.  It was her overhead camera, in an area where the sky was much darker, the light that peeked through much briefer.  The wind blew at people’s jackets and hair, whipping it.

“It’s a replay,” Kenzie said.

The camera fixed on one individual.  A woman, blonde, wearing a light blue jacket with a white fur ruff collar.  She walked with her hands in her pockets, head down.

As the replay continued, a few droplets of moisture collected on the lens of the camera.  It blinked them away.  Each time she raised her head or the wind blew her hair out of her face, the camera took snapshots.  The various shots of the woman’s face appeared off to the side, organized into rows and columns by some system I didn’t recognize.

“Crystalclear is in the prison undercover,” Rain said.  “Once I confirmed I knew you, he talked to his superiors, and they reached out to us.  One subset of the Wardens.”

“They’re letting us know, but we’re not supposed to tell the other teams we’re working with,” Tristan said.

The scene continued, the woman entering a store.   The scene skipped ahead to when she was making her exit, now with a bag in hand.

“Why lead a mundane life when you’re that powerful?” Tristan asked.

The camera zoomed in on the bag, shifting through vision modes, each shift suggesting something about the outlines of what was in the bag.  Food, it looked like.  Regular Earth-Gimel groceries.

When the camera pulled back to get a better view of her, she was staring up at it.

“Good bye,” Kenzie said.

The hand that was holding the groceries twitched, fingers going from a curled position to straight-out.  The image shattered- all glitches, artifacts, violent flickering, and the brief audio of a clatter.

“Broken into a million and a half pieces,” Kenzie said.  “It hurts to lose it.”

“She knows we’re looking at her?” I asked.

“She doesn’t care,” Ashley said.

“She doesn’t,” Rain said.  “Foresight and the Wardens have been keeping tabs on major players.  They knew she was interested in the prison- she didn’t make any secrets about it.  Her underlings have been ringing in regularly.  That interest of hers was reason enough to watch her.  She sees them watching and scares them off, just like she disintegrated the camera.  She doesn’t change her routine outside of that.  She doesn’t use powers, they don’t think, unless it’s in situations like that just now, and at one point she went for a swim.”

“Why is the swim noteworthy?”

“Because she swam three hundred and sixty miles without coming up for air,” Rain said.

“She flew underwater,” Ashley said.  “It’s evasive action, ducking out of sight, going where a lot of cameras and some thinker powers can’t.”

The still images gathered together, then the individual variances served to help it form a three-dimensional map.  The representation of the head faced the camera, and then began rotating slowly.

Tristan spoke, “We’ve got people keeping an eye out for the zealots that are operating around the prison, Auzure is keeping an eye on the prison medical, Sveta’s guys will track some key guards, now the Major Malfunctions- who did we give them?”

“I gave them the response team leader,” I said.  “If things get bad and the anklets don’t work, his people are the ones who suit up and go in.  If the anklets do work, he’s one of two people who sign off on pulling the trigger.”

“Good to have eyes on him, then.  We’ll get more teams in on this later this afternoon.”

“She’s weaponizing the second chance,” Ashley said.

“Weaponizing?” Rain asked.

“Walking among us.  Disappearing into the crowd.  She’s gathering people, and she’s being subtle about it.  She’s too important to go completely unnoticed, but she’s doing something here.  She does have minions, she’s just telling them to stay away.”

“Because keeping her allies close would draw too much attention.  This way, it’s ambiguous.  It’s really hard to take issue with someone who’s living in an apartment and buying groceries,” I voiced my thoughts aloud.

“We’re just glossing over the fact she took over a planet,” Tristan said.

Images popped up.  They were odd angles, some forced.  Surveillance camera footage of the street.  Someone’s photograph that they had put online, which had her in the background.

“This is all I’m able to find right now,” Kenzie said.

“We have thinkers we can turn to the task,” Tristan said.  “Contacts.  Foresight is offering to help.”

The screen was practically on fire with the lines that showed connections, ten or more flickering through every second, brute-forcing their way through possible renditions.

More images popped up.  Someone’s dash-mounted camera caught her on the street.

“Let’s make sure we have some resources,” I said.  “We have the greenlist.  It might be worth seeing if anyone could help us if she goes rogue or if she tries to collect people by force.”

“Power nullifiers?” Tristan asked.  “Thinkers?  Masters?”

“Yeah.”

“Let me do that, then.”

Chris let himself in.  His eyes immediately went to the wall.

“Kenzie,” Ashley said.  “Can you do me a favor?”

“Yup.”

“The moment she destroyed the camera.  Can you go back to that?”

“I can go back to that place in things, yeah.”

The image on the wall shifted.  Back to the scene where the Lady in Blue had her groceries.

The scene moved around by increments, as the camera hovered, swaying in the wind.

“There.”

“That doesn’t do me much good.  Send it to my laptop?”

“Oh.  I forgot you weren’t really there.  Now I miss you.”

“I’m here talking with you.  It’s as good as we’re going to get for now.  Focus in on the face?”

Kenzie did, doing the same with the image on the wall for our benefit as well.

Anger, a flash of it, disdainful.

“Scared,” Ashley said.  “And not of the camera.”

“I don’t see it,” I said.

“I can almost see it,” Chris said.

“You’ve seen the footage?” I asked.

“Before you got back.  I went out to make sure I’m free and clear if something happens this afternoon.”

That soon?  We’re not ready.

There were still people to organize, we needed to find people who might be able to deal with this woman, get them on board, and then coordinate them.  If none of us could go, then the hit team we recruited would have to.  Beyond that, what?  Civilians?  Men and women with guns against an invincible woman who could telekinetically smash a camera from a quarter-mile away?

All of which ignored the zealots.  They weren’t invincible, far from it, but they were invisible.

We had no idea of knowing when this could all come to a head.

I heard the squeak of whiteboard marker and I looked.

Tristan was at my board where I’d listed the ‘green’ capes and teams.  The same ones we’d just recruited.

A black ‘x’ here.

A black ‘x’ there.

By my mom and dad, even.  A black ‘x’.

“Cap-” I started.  But he was talking to the phone that was pressed to one ear.

I waited.

He finished.  Everyone was watching him as he put the phone down.  When he slashed out the black ‘x’ by the Kings of the Hill, it was more dramatic, messier, angrier.

“What happened?” I asked.

“We’re being undercut,” Tristan answered.  “It’s going to be a thing tonight, but these teams and people-”

He stabbed the board.

“They’ve got an ear to the ground.  A group is talking about Lookout, and they’re pushing it to the public later.  They don’t want to deal with us until we get this handled.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Beacon – 8.7

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

There was a growing feeling of satisfaction as people got underway with their days and messages started coming in.  Steelmasons were starting patrols near the devastated old Wardens HQ.  Auzure was resuming business as normal, but as they got things done they hoped to be able to spare their people.  Shorewatch was just setting up at their HQ- they’d been on a break since the portal attack and were just getting into the swing of things.

Shorewatch’s situation wasn’t so dissimilar from us.  We’d taken a break to reel, to attend to our individual group members.  Sveta, Tristan and I were in headquarters early in the day, the place was clean, and the whiteboards that had been wiped clean were filling up again.

More messages, and it was a two-for-one this time.  Rushdown and Royale were reporting in.  They weren’t a team so much as they were a pair, but they operated from the same area of the city as Houndstooth’s Kings.  They’d emailed a report they were starting their day closer to noon, with the intent of going after some people who had been trying to stir up riots.  There was an outside chance those people were Cheit’s provocateurs.  They also included a report on behalf of the Kings of the Hill.

Houndstooth hadn’t mentioned that he’d be doing that, but I could understand it, kind of.  One degree of separation.  Lookout couldn’t hack people.  This enabled his team to communicate with us without discomfort.

I saw the first message from people that hadn’t been at the meeting.  They hadn’t used the email format I’d requested, and they called themselves The Major Malfunctions.  There were also several glaring typos, to the point I was suspicious that non-capes or villains had found our word-of-mouth setup and were toying with us.

A painfully slow search online brought up some images of kid heroes with terrible costumes.  They’d been small timers before Gold Morning, small town ‘heroes’ who’d rotated between three middle-of-nowhere towns in North Dakota looking for villains or criminals.  Four years of activity and they hadn’t found any.

It would have been easy to dismiss them, or to disparage them.  They had dropped out of school to be heroes and had no wins.  The lack of education was clear in the spelling errors.  It worried me a bit that their referral had come from ‘Super Magic Dream Parade’, the loopy team from Boston, who had apparently heard about what we were doing and passed on word.

The Major Malfunctions were teenagers now and they’d been kids when they’d triggered.  They’d stayed heroes across six years, and they’d stayed together.

That had to count for something.

I took a minute to fix the errors and formatting, then dragged the email over to the tracking program.  It was the same program the Patrol Block had used, but I’d filed off the serial numbers and gone into the code to change the names of some labels.

I sent them a reply.  We’d use their help if they were free.

I wasn’t even done with looking over the next entry when the Majors replied, excited and incomprehensible.

“How’s it going?” Tristan asked.  He stood by a whiteboard.  It looked like he was sketching out the prison complex.  He’d worn the non-armor part of his costume beneath his jacket, and now had the skintight top and jeans.  It wasn’t the textured pattern of the usual under-the-armor bodysuit, which would allow the texture to peek through the gaps between armor.  It was just black.

He’d painted his hair again, though.  Orange-red.  Stiff rolls, curls and waves locked in place with glue-like hair product.

“We’re getting responses.  People are talking about what they’re doing, they’ll fill us in if they get answers and they’ll open it up to the rest of us if they end up with questions.  Do you know these kids, uh, Major Malfunctions?”

“No,” he said.

“Sveta?” I asked.

“Hm?” she looked up from her computer.

She looked nice.  Beaded necklaces were looped around and below the more rigid part of the collar that was her neck.  Her top was a very summery sort, a hooded crop-top that was torn, not cut, at the neck and sleeves.  Tan with a bold blue-green lizard on it.  Her pants were a little less loose and casual than her usual.  Her wig was brushed and her tattoo at her cheek was left uncovered by makeup.

She’d gone shopping.  A selfish part of me felt left out- I would’ve wanted to take her shopping, do that as a thing together, but Tristan had prodded her to talk about what was making her feel awkward, and clothes and body were apparently off the table.

Just business and safe topics then.  “I wanted to ask if you were familiar with Major Malfunctions?  They’re a team.”

“I don’t know them.”

“Okay.  They’re hard to get a read on.  Zero experience despite putting in the years.  Odd histories.”

She nodded.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, heard from an old acquaintance, that’s all,” Sveta said, giving me a tight smile.  She had to work her fingers into the right position before hitting the key combination to take her computer to the log-in screen.  She shut the computer.

Not yeah, I thought.

“We can talk about it if you want.”

“Let me digest it first,” she said.  “Catch me up?”

She and I both walked over to the point roughly between my setup and Tristan’s.

“I’m thinking about the prison,” Tristan said.  He stabbed a marker at the series of squares and lines that depicted the prison.  “To get there, you have to travel to one portal, which is about twenty-five minutes away from the city, and then you have to travel for another twenty minutes to get to the next portal.  That one’s where the guards and security are.  That’s without the time it takes to reach the first portal.  It’s deliberately set out of reach.  What are our options?”

I folded my arms.  “The obvious option is that we enable Kenzie because she’s exactly what we need in this situation, we exacerbate her issues and ignore problematic behavior, and we regret it down the road.”

“Obvious but not ideal,” Sveta said.

“We have reason to believe they’re watching- which would be hard, or they infiltrated the prison with the aim of going after Goddess- we assumed staff.”

“They have more ability to communicate with the outside world than prisoners do,” Sveta said.  “Though they did let Rain and Ash have laptops and phone access.”

“Limited,” Tristan added, “And monitored.”

“Code?” Sveta asked.

“Could be,” I said.  “But staff seems more likely.  Staff can drug, make promises, open doors, manipulate.”

Sveta nodded, her eyes widening.  “It’s scary to think about.  Remember how vulnerable people were at the hospital?  If someone had caught me at the wrong time with a few kind words, I could have believed anything.  I think some of the Irregulars fell into that trap.”

“Okay,” Tristan said.  “We keep an eye on the staff?”

I shook my head.

“No?”

“The question isn’t whether we do.  I think it makes sense.  The question is if we can do it while keeping Kenzie out of trouble.  We need to do this surveillance without handing a ridiculous amount of work to an eleven year old that’s already prone to overworking herself.”

“Agreed,” Sveta said.  “Did we make any contacts that might be able to help with thinker powers?”

“I can’t think of any big ones from the people who replied already, but we’re getting a lot of responses and it’s only, what, nine?”  I got a nod of confirmation and carried on, “The prison being isolated is a double-edged sword.  The staff need to sleep, they have families, homes to go back to, and they have commutes.”

“If they’re out of reach at the prison, we get them when they’re elsewhere,” Tristan said.  “See if they arrange any meetings.”

I smiled a little.  “Yeah.”

“It’s a lot of people,” Sveta said.  “And you want to do it without Kenzie?”

“If we’re going to make her happy or find a safe way for her to hero, for both workload and this frontline role she really wants, I don’t think it’ll involve her maintaining a thousand surveillance operations.”

“So we have a thousand surveillance operations to manage some other way?” Tristan asked.

I couldn’t help but notice the way he’d asked it.  Was he disappointed that I was trying to steer us away from leaning on our tinker?

“We’ve got some responses.  We can whittle down the list, rule some people out.”

“Who do we have?” he asked.

I led them over to my computer, showing them the program and the responses.

One of the most powerful parahumans we know of on one side, a hostile and nebulous force on the other, and a prison filled with some of the most irredeemable and unfortunate of us in the middle.

I went over the people I’d already seen the responses from, from the Steelmasons to the Major Malfunctions, and I was just getting into the message from Dream Parade when the fire escape rattled.

Our kid team members.  They were noisy as they let themselves in, because they were mid-argument.  Natalie was a short distance behind them.  She ducked her head in a kind of greeting-apology, lingering at the door.

Kenzie’s hair wasn’t in the two buns, but was instead parted to one side, glossy and still with the pin.  Today was a blue heart day, it seemed.  She wore a blue sweater-dress with a glittery texture, pink tights, and a pink shirt with a folded collar that poked through the collar of her sweater.

Chris, by contrast, looked a little worse for wear, with circles under his eyes.  Under his jacket, he wore a horizontally-striped shirt of black and green.  He wore torn jeans and a leather fanny pack.  It was the kind of nice fanny pack that suggested maybe a nod toward fashion or a kind of effort, but it was a fanny pack.  They were never going to be cool.

Where Kenzie had adjusted her hair, Chris was in usual form – the external rigging for his braces, and the headphones with the bar of the headphones pushing the hair at the top of his head flat against his scalp, so the curls only really went wild at the back.  Pockets were full, the fanny pack was full, and he carried a bag heavy enough that his usual slouch was worse.

Natalie, meanwhile, wore the jacket I’d seen her in before, as well as a black button-up under a gray business jacket, with black slacks.  If the belt hadn’t also been black, it would’ve worked nicely.  Her forehead creased in worry.

I beckoned for her to come in.  She had to edge past the two younger members of the group.

“You can do the costume thing!” Kenzie was saying.  “Not just stealing my camo.  I have to recharge that stuff.”

“The costume thing you’re talking about would be exactly the same.”

“But it would be your costume, not my camo.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Chris said.  To us, he said.  “She doesn’t make sense.”

“I don’t make sense?  Do you want to share with the class what you told me when I had to go looking for you at the train station?”

“We were late,” Chris said.  “I had a health issue.  I don’t know what her excuse is.”

“The people who are looking after me hogged the bathroom!  I didn’t even get to do my hair!”

“I can talk to them,” Natalie said.

“It’s fine, mostly.  I could deal if I could just adjust, but it’s different people or mixes of people with different ways of doing stuff,” Kenzie said.  “You can’t talk to them about that.  It’s just the way it is.”

“I’ll talk to them about mixing schedules,” Natalie said.  “This is solvable.”

Kenzie nodded.

“Your hair looks nice,” I said.

“Thank you.  It makes me feel anxious.  Anyway!  I got to the station late and he was off in my direction, so we were going to catch the train together, but he wasn’t there.  And he comes out of the bathroom and-”

“You asked if I wanted to share with the class, and I can’t get five words out before the digressions and you start telling the story for me.”

“You weren’t telling!  And, um, if you’re not comfortable telling, that’s okay.  But if you are and you’re slinging mud at me instead, I’m just going to tell it.”

“I’ll tell it,” he said.  “Apparently taking on a form with a thousand and five hundred angry foetal grubs crammed inside it gets messy.  I changed back to normal, but I guess the foetal grubs didn’t all vacate.  I had a slurry of their bits in my guts.”

I could see Natalie visibly pale.

“That’s a good reason to not use that form again,” Capricorn said.  “That was horrifying.”

“It’d be fine if I’d evacuated while I was still Brooding Anger,” Chris said, giving me a look.  “But I was told not to.  By someone who isn’t really official leader.”

I was careful as I articulated myself, “A thousand grubs inside you.  They had fangs and claws-”

“Technically they were part human, part grub.  I think.”

“You said they were nonlethal,” I said.  I frowned.  “Chris, I don’t believe you.”

“They would have listened to me, after,” Chris said.  “I think?  Instinctual listening.”

I shook my head.  “No.”

“No sounds good,” Natalie echoed me, her voice soft.

“Let’s not terrorize people too much,” Tristan said.  “That thing was horrifying.”

“That thing was me.  Anyway, I’m done talking about this.”

He tossed his bag onto the table by his favorite chair, then removed the fanny pack.  It joined the bag.

He gave me a hard look when we made eye contact.  With everyone going to their workstations, only Sveta and I lingering, I opted not to bug Chris.

I headed over to talk to Kenzie.  Natalie followed, because safeguarding Kenzie was her job.  It seemed like a conflict of interest, given our prior arrangement, but I imagined the pool of people who could be told Kenzie’s identity as Lookout was narrow, and the system was overloaded.

“Sorry to hear your caretakers left you frazzled,” I said.

“They’re super nice, and I trust them,” Kenzie said.  “I think whenever hero stuff comes up, they don’t know what to do, so they give up.  It’s like in books when a girl says she has woman troubles and the adult guy gets flustered and gives her whatever she wants, except I don’t think that happens in real life.  How do you end up forty and not know basic stuff?”

“Uh huh,” I said.  “There was a seventeen year old in my Patrol Block who didn’t know the ordering of the alphabet after T.  You’d be surprised.”

“Well, it seems problematic to not know how hero and villain stuff works,” Kenzie said.

“I don’t think anyone knows,” Natalie said.

“The basics, though,” Kenzie said, as she typed at her keyboard.  “Is it okay if I bring Rain and Ash over here?”

“Bring?” Natalie asked.

“Projections,” Kenzie said.  “Basically a prettied up video call.  It lets them be here, even though they’re really over there looking at their laptops.”

“It’s fine,” I said.

Kenzie nodded enthusiastically.  She began working.

Two cameras came to life.  They floated to different heights above the ground.  Then the dark sides of the big projector box came to life, and the images appeared, frozen in space.

“When you said projections, I thought they’d be see-through or flickering,” Natalie said.  “They look real.”

“Almost,” Kenzie said.  “Calling.”

There was a beep, and Rain’s projection started moving.  The physical movements below the neck were fairly generic, but the faces seemed true to life.

“I wish I had a better idea of what my body was doing,” Rain said.

“Welcome to my life,” Sveta said.

“I can’t tell if you’re joking.  If you’re not, I’m really sorry.”

“I’m joking, don’t worry,” she said.  “Dark joke, but hey.”

Ashley’s projection took on a semblance of life.  She looked around.

Tristan was the one who started us off.  “People are interested.  We’re lining up help, and what we’re thinking is we’ll use that help to track prison staff when they’re outside of the prison- especially those who are making suspicious movements.  Any clues you can give us help.

“This kind of tracking sounds extreme,” Natalie said.

I answered, “Standard cop-style surveillance.  Lots of waiting.  No peeking in windows, no trespassing on property.  If they go for a drive late at night, we have a flier or speedster track them.  Maybe thinkers poke their heads in.”

“Okay,” Natalie said.  She considered for a moment.  “How do you enforce this if it’s hired help?”

“If they screw around or bend the rules, we cut them off,” Ashley said.

“That,” I said.  “We have reason to think the prison is compromised.  The big heroes know about it, but we’re in an awkward position.  It’s like trying to deal with someone planning on crashing a plane.  It’s a lot harder to get them when they’re out of reach.  If we can get them on the ground, though-”

“You fly,” Rain said.

“It’s an allegory, Rain,” Sveta said.  “I’d punch you in the arm if you were here.”

“Anything you guys can give us helps,” I said.  “Starting points, ways to narrow down who we’re looking at.”

“I talked to Crystalclear,” Rain said.  “I tried, anyway, he wasn’t down for it.  I said I knew you, and you’d fought together at the community center, but he didn’t believe me.”

“Makes sense,” Chris said.  “You could be a thinker.  Or an anything.  If he was a hero, he might have enemies.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.

I mused for a second before saying, “I visited Fume Hood at the hospital, Tempera and Crystalclear were there.  Later that night, I had Tempera help me with a kid in crisis – she would have told Crystalclear.  The kid ended up going to Europe.  He should be able to confirm where we’re at, then see what he has to say.”

“Got it,” Rain said.

“I have something too,” Ashley said.  “Goddess is interested in the prison.  Did you read her messages?”

“No,” Tristan said.  “There’s no written record.  She’s doing it through her people, who call or visit, because her actually showing up would be as good as an act of war.  There are some notes here and there, for paperwork, and we can see emails going out asking for arbitration or help.  She’s been interested since before the portal debacle, and she’s been getting impatient.”

“I got part of it,” Ashley said.  “I had words with Monokeros.  She mentioned this woman – must we call her Goddess?”

“We mustn’t,” Sveta said.  “The woman in blue.  The Dictator of Shin.”

“Calling her a dictator would be giving her too much respect.  This blue woman reached out to Monokeros.  It’s part of why she wants to come here.  She wants her, and she wants some specific others- all of us, I’m sure, if she can get us, but she was apparently asking if the Mathers bitch was at this prison.”

“Shit,” Rain said.  “No.  Mama Mathers?”

“Yes,” Ashley said.

“She wants mind controllers?” I asked.

“She might not have control over Shin,” Sveta said.  “She has this power that makes capes willing to serve her-”

“One of her many powers,” I added.

“But she was pulled out of her world just like everyone else.  Her lieutenants were pulled out of her world.  No more capes to control things – we don’t know how the population reacted.”

“Riots,” Chris said.  “It’d have to be.”

“She can’t go back until she has the means of seizing control.  She hasn’t come after Gimel to take that because…” Sveta trailed off.

“She’s missing something,” I said.  “Or she was injured in the final fight, or… there’s some stipulation on how her powers work or how she maintains a balance where she’s a multitrigger like Rain but with top tier powers across the board.”

“Or,” Capricorn said.  “She knows it would mean war between her world and ours, and we have more capes.  Her civilians might outnumber our civilians, but they hate her.  There’s no loyalty.  She took over her world and it was a hostile occupation.”

“I was wearing the eye camera,” Ashley said.  “I talked to Monokeros after I said goodnight to Kenzie.  You didn’t watch?”

“No,” Kenzie said.  “Should I have?”

“Don’t,” Ashley said.  “Pretend it doesn’t exist, as a favor to me.  Someone else in the group should watch it.  Sveta, I trust you.  Victoria.  But not Chris or Kenzie.”

“I’m being lumped in as one of the kids now?” Chris asked.  “If I hadn’t been strongarmed into keeping my womb to myself last night, I’d have kids.  Probably.  I think some of the hardier ones would have lasted.”

I saw Natalie suppress a shiver.

“It’s private, and I’m saying no.”

“I don’t like being left out,” Kenzie was quiet as she said it.

“Please.  I’ll make it up to you,” Ashley said.

“Make it up to me by getting out of prison sooner,” Kenzie said.

“Okay.  I’ll try.”

“Keep doing what you’re doing, guys,” Tristan said.  “Twist Crystalclear’s ear, Rain.  Ashley, we’ll watch your video.  Victoria was showing us a list of the people who’ve showed interest lately.”

“I think the other heroes are discouraged and frustrated too,” Sveta said.  “It’s been a long time since we didn’t have the PRT or the Wardens as a thing we could turn to.  They want a way to fill that void.”

“We’re not a replacement for the Wardens and we’re definitely not a replacement for the Protectorate,” I said, firm.  “I don’t want to be that.  It would be a complete and utter disaster.  I want to change the rules we’re playing by.”

“We’ll try it,” Tristan said.  “I’ve got, hm, nineteen minutes before I need to switch out.  We divvy up people and groups and give them direction, Lookout- Kenzie, can you queue up the video for Rain, Sveta, Victoria and me?  Then maybe use that program we had in Hollow Point.  Not listening in on anyone directly, but tracking keywords and phrases.”

“Goddess, prison?” Kenzie asked.

“What do you think?” Tristan asked Natalie.

“I feel nervous saying yes to several things in a row,” Natalie said.

“Are we reasonably sound here?”

“Let me look at the list of words you come up with after.”

“Great.  Chris?  Take it easy, we’ll have you running errands later.  And if you have to go, find a discreet place in nature to do it.  I don’t want you destroying our toilet by filling it with tiny bones or whatever.”

“I can feel the love,” Chris said.

“I like you fine,” Tristan replied.  “I like our security deposit too.”

“Everyone has their tasks,” Ashley said.

“Mine’s apparently to not shit in the toilet,” Chris said.

“Yours is to wait, conserve energy, be ready to change to something convenient so you can go talk to people or run recon, and stop being a nuisance,” Ashley said.

“Yeah, alright,” Chris said.  “I’m going to go for a walk to find a spot of nature so I won’t have any distractions later.  Maybe it’ll get me closer to normal sooner.”

“Good luck,” Kenzie said.

As the group broke apart, there was immediate decision-making to be had.  Sveta wanted to go talk to the misfits, individuals, and the ones who seemed more like the ‘true blue’ types.  It seemed like a fair balance, difficult misfits and easier heroes.

For Capricorn and I, it was a question of who we thought we could get along with or communicate with more easily.  Some consideration was given to the fact I could fly and Capricorn had to travel a route on foot.

Kenzie had found the footage of Monokeros.  As she moved through different areas of the apartment and Ashley’s activities therin, there were glimpses.  Black haired, pretty, with numerous tattoos, with the most prominent being a bold triangle at her forehead.

The image stopped at a short-haired Ashley looking in the mirror, hands resting on the table just beneath that mirror.

“That’s fine,” I heard Ashley tell Kenzie.

“I’m going to go get stuff together,” Kenzie said.  “Keep me company?”

“Of course.”

Sveta and Tristan put down what they were doing to approach Kenzie’s workstation.  The image of Rain was already nearby.  I hit the spacebar.

Audio levels fluctuated as Ashley went from being on pause to moving.

The rooms were basic, built without much flourish and with basic materials.  They had to be new, yet the floorboards creaked as Ashley walked.  Her other half was in the kitchen, standing by two cups of tea- styrofoam cups, teabags still in.

She took her tea with a simple “thank you” and carried it out to the balcony.

I appreciated the view the eye-camera gave us.  A glimpse of the prison from a higher point of view.  I hadn’t been able to go up by the visitation rules.  No thinker 1 power for me.

Ashley’s head turned.  She looked down at the next balcony – a floor below, as close to the corner of the building as it could be without turning a right angle.

Monokeros.  As glimpsed in the rewind.

“You tested me, Monokeros,” Ashley said.

“Monokeros,” the woman replied.  “It’s always Monokeros.  You can call me Kathlee.”

“I’m not going to do that.”

“You could even win points if you called me Unicorn.”

“I’m not interested in your points, Monokeros.  You know what you did.  Another person might report you to the authorities for the use of your power.”

Monokeros snickered.  “You’d be a rat.  That gets you in trouble with Llorona.  It puts you on the bad side of everyone here.  No, you have to be smarter than that.”

“I know.  I have acquaintances, and I have very poor impulse control.  You should know that every time you get close to me, there’s a chance I’ll come for you.  From now on, if we’re in the yard, you keep your distance from me.  If I come near you, you’ll scramble to get out of the way.  If you’re sitting, you’ll stand and walk away.”

“If you try anything, you’ll hurt more than I do,” Monokeros said.

“If I try anything, your existence will end.  You’re a child killer, Monokeros.  You have no clout.”

“Don’t they say that if someone lives on in our hearts, they’re still with us?  They say it when a family member dies, but when you use my diplomatic pull ability, draw them in, take them apart with delicacy, never sullying them, but working with an eye for beauty… and then watch the light go out of their eyes, slowly, slowly, slowly,” Monokeros luxuriated in her own words.  “Mm.  If you hold that moment more dear in your heart than any parent could hold onto the memories of their child, no, you’re a murderer.  It’s death this time, the idea of holding onto memories is some kind of falsehood all of a sudden because the child is goneHypocrisy.

“You call it diplomatic pull?  No, Monokeros.  You’re pathetic in every sense of the word.”

“I could do it to you now, if the monitor wouldn’t blow up,” Monokeros said.  She backed away and shook one foot.  “You’d adore me.  I’d see glimpses of you as a person, more as time passed, until I understood you fundamentally.  And even if you managed to push away the feeling of adoration for long enough to do something… you can’t touch me.”

“It’s an inane name, it doesn’t fit your theme.”

“Someone else disagrees, you know.  I’ve had brief exchanges with her.  Promises were made.  She would make me something better, housemate.  Higher class, wealthy, and she promised me an infinite supply of my drug of choice.”

“I don’t believe you.  Communications don’t come and go that freely.”

Monokeros made an amused sound.

“Keep your fictional Goddess close then, and scramble to stay out of my way.”

“She’ll save you too.  She’ll save all of us.  Those who served her before she had that control will live lives of luxury.”

“You’d be her slaves.  That’s her power.”

“I’d be her slave and I’d be beautiful beyond compare.  She has a lieutenant who creates pods.  Sensory deprivation and plastic surgery in one.  She ran a whole world, and she’ll run it again.  I could go anywhere, any country or city, and enjoy the sights, party, be waited on hand and foot.”

“And your victims?  You pretended to set up a hero team and baited young heroes and heroines in, only to kill them.”

“They aren’t truly dead if they live on in our hearts, or in my heart.  Haven’t you been listening?”

Ashley was silent for a long time.

“I see.”

“I like you, Ashley the second.”

“Swansong, if you must distinguish.”

“Ah, I have a fondness of using ‘the second’, ‘the third’, ‘the fourth’.  I was the fourth Unicorn.  There was a boy who applied to join my team.  My second Paul.  It’s like a way of keeping count as everything marches on.”

The view bobbed as Ashley nodded.

“As I said, I like you.  It’s my habit to jab and cut when I like something, that’s all.  Your friend?  She’s not in any danger from me.”

“You’re a known liar, Monokeros.  A deceiver.  You were a spider drawing others into your web.”

“I was a unicorn, that every young child wants a few fleeting moments with.  Wonder, awe, and the fantastical.  And when they tell those stories in the children’s books, that’s so often where the story ends.  Sometimes a quest, sometimes a moralizing about beauty or the nature of innocence, but most often it’s an end to that section and set of descriptions.  Nobody writes an epic about the life lived after the unicorn is befriended.  It’s the moment that matters.”

Ashley was silent.

“I don’t want your friend because she isn’t beautiful.  I’m sorry, but she’s scuffed, and it’s on the face.  I saw it when I got a glimpse of her.  I can accept other scars, but I draw the line at the face.”

“The lines are showing in your own face, Monokeros,” Ashley said.

“Unkind,” Monokeros said, but there was a note of emotion in it.

“I might deal with that pod maker before he can fix those lines around the eyes.  Maybe that would be fitting punishment for using your power on my friend.”

“There’s no need to make something so monumental over something so scuffed and small,” Monokeros said.  She sounded irritated.  “I’m saying I don’t want her.  Ask any parent if they’d adopt her or the girl without the blemish.  Ask any boy if he’d date a girl with a scar or one without.  A toy unboxed and scratched is worth a tiny fraction of what it would be if left intact.  Worth is objective.  This is not complicated.”

“You have no eye for true beauty and worth, Monokeros,” Ashley said.  “I can tell you that.  I’d have her as a subordinate, teammate, or friend before I had anyone else.  You’re blind.”

“Such cutting insults.  I’d say it’s been a pleasure to chat, but I’d be lying.  This whole conversation has been so tiresome,” Monokeros said.  She retreated inside.  Her voice was faint.  “My kingdom, my kingdom, my kingdom, for a decent housemate.”

“You’ll have no kingdom if I can help it,” Ashley said, but she said it to herself.  She turned away, and the view went dark as she reached up for the eye camera with clumsy hands.

Tristan hit the spacebar.  The video froze.

“That’s a pretty good indicator of what we’re up against, then,” he said.

I nodded.

“There were hints,” Ashley said.  In the background, Kenzie was with Natalie, drawing something on the whiteboard.  Ashley’s projection had come our way.  “Monokeros’ attitude, she seemed cavalier, she doesn’t keep secrets, she likes to tease, hint, bait.  It led me to think she had an escape route.”

“Goddess,” I said.

“Yes,” Ashley said.  There was a pause.  “Kenzie.”

I turned to look.  Sveta and Capricorn did too.

I saw Kenzie smiling.

“She listened- I didn’t realize until it was too late.  My view isn’t as good as real eyes, like this.”

I winced.

“I don’t get it,” Tristan said.

I made eye contact with Ashley- or with her projection.

“Watch her,” Ashley said to us, to me in particular.  “My gut feeling is it wouldn’t take much.”

I nodded.

“I’ll try,” I said.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Beacon – 8.6

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

“I have a random thought,” I said.

Sveta and Capricorn were with me.  Heroes were arriving- some in cars.  They were the ones I’d labeled in green.  The friends, the acquaintances, the ones where I figured there was enough trust that we could promise a favor in exchange for their help and they’d listen.  Our vantage point on the roof of a garage put us above them all.

“Do share,” Sveta said.

“When the team was first getting together, I was trying to wrap my head around it.  In thinking about names and thinking about themes, whatever I thought about, I felt like there was always at least one odd man out.”

“I know what you mean,” Capricorn said.  “Branding, theme, style.  If the team goes rugged then you, me, Ashley and Lookout are tough to fit in, while Chris and Rain are happy as clams.  Sveta can adapt to that.  If we go polished, preppy, hair done up… opposite.”

“Applies to other things too,” I said.

“And I don’t think I could adapt to polished,” Sveta said, cutting in before I could return to my thought.

Capricorn shrugged.  “You’ve got the creative, artistic touch and a pretty face.  You could change how you do your arms.  I really think you could pull it off.”

“Except I don’t want to, and I’m uncomfortable,” she said.  “Sorry, can we change the subject?”

“Sure,” Capricorn said.  “But before we drop it-”

“Capricorn,” I interrupted, my voice a warning.

“What?”

“Boundaries,” I said.

“Really.  It’s twice now in recent memory you’ve wanted to change the topic.  This is just me adding to the discomfort for five seconds so I can avoid all of it in the future.  Okay?”

“Okay,” Sveta replied, sighing like it was an extension of the word.

“Why uncomfortable?”

“Um.  Saying I have a pretty face is a very nice thing to say-”

“No hetero,” he interrupted.

“-er, yes,” she said.  She smiled despite herself.  “But it reminds me that I’m just a face, pretty much.  Sorry, I’ve been thinking a lot about… um, bodies, and my lack of one, because of stuff I brought up with you both.”

“Got it,” Tristan said.  “Chat me up if you want to pick my brain again.  Until then, no talk of bodies or boning.”

“Thank you,” she said the two words with finality.  She looked at me, “There was always one person who didn’t fit in, when you tried to create a cohesive identity?  Except maybe for the, uh, group.”

The therapy.

“Victoria wasn’t a part of that,” Capricorn said.

“I guess,” she replied.

“Thing is,” I said.  “Standing here, thinking about how I didn’t even have to ask Capricorn if he was on board with seriously going after these guys-”

“Damn fucking straight,” Capricorn said it with enough force that a few heads turned our way.

“We’re tenacious,” I said.  “Every last member of the group, we’ve been given every reason to give up and we pushed on.”

“For better or for worse.  Poor Lookout,” Capricorn said.

“I can get behind the idea,” Sveta said.  “Tenacious.”

I stood a little straighter, taking in the group of gathered heroes.  I drew in a breath.  “Then let’s go be stubborn.  We’re not going to accept this loss.”

“Yeah,” Capricorn said.

I flew down from the roof of the concrete garage.  I went straight from flying to striding forward.  Capricorn hopped down, though it wasn’t a distance most would want to jump- twenty feet onto packed dirt, a heavy landing with the armor he wore.  Just a little bit of enhanced physique could go a long way.

Sveta’s landing wasn’t as graceful.  I heard the noise as she hauled herself, turned to look, and saw her coming my way.  My arm went out and I caught her with it- stopping her from stumbling forward while helping to keep her upright.

She took my hand and gave it a momentary squeeze.

Heroes gathered around us.  Fume Hood was present- Tempera wasn’t.  Lighter had come, which was nice- it was my first time seeing the low-key vigilante, though we’d talked some by email.  He’d been scheduled for a turn at harassing Cedar Point, but things had gone to hell before the scheduled time had come.  He’d been enthusiastic about that- and I could assume he’d like the idea of this.

Sometimes a team seemed like too much, but being a solo hero was too lonely.  Triggering tended to involve some lack of support structures- that was Parahumans 101, class one, an hour and fifteen minutes into the three hour lecture level stuff.  To go from that to being a costumed hero didn’t generally involve gaining more support.

Maybe this would appeal.

Houndstooth was absent, but two of his subordinates were present.  I recognized Foxtrot and another member of the Kings of the Hill.  Foxtrot’s chatter about the Cedar Point operation had led to Advance Guard jumping in and our involvement being spoiled.  Well, I had my suspicions that Scapegoat might have helped matters.  The defected healer from Advance Guard was the primary one to blame- but Foxtrot had let some minor things slip.

My parents had been on that list of heroes with green labels.  I’d been pretty certain that in an emergency, they’d help.  If I asked, even.  But they hadn’t answered the call, and they weren’t here.  I couldn’t fault them – three out of four of the people we’d reached out to hadn’t.

“You want to handle this?” I asked Capricorn, as we drew nearer.

“Nah.  Let me lead in, but this is your idea.”

I nodded.

Twelve capes in all, from various teams.  More would have been nice, but we’d reached out at eight-something at night to essentially say we wanted a hand, could they meet us near the mid-Megalopolis point in the next ten minutes?  Some had been too far, others had been retired for the evening… these numbers were good, considering.

“Thank you for coming,” Capricorn said.  “I’ll recap in case our teammate didn’t spell it out in full when he reached out.  Two villains, strong ones, just threatened civilians to get the good guys to back off so they could make a run for it.  They’re driving trucks of stolen livestock.  The one we caught said they’re working for Prancer, from Cedar Point.”

I started my piece.  “We feel the rules need enforcing.  They can’t threaten civilians.  Help us, and we’ll either owe you one or if you want a longer-term relationship, we can talk about building something.”

Lighter was nodding.  Fume Hood looked receptive- but I wasn’t sure if that was her trying to be helpful, putting on a good face.

“Where are they now?” Foxtrot asked.

“Just north of here.  Mover and multiple vehicles,” Capricorn said.  “Trial and Error.”

“I’ve run into them,” Lighter said.  “Trial hits hard.  I didn’t get Error.”

“Good names,” Foxtrot said.

We’ll have to politely disagree on that, I thought.  Instead of voicing that thought, I explained, “Trial hits hard, he’s defensive, and he’s mobile, manipulating chains and spinning them to propel himself forward.”

“Yep,” Lighter said.  “Good summary.”

“Error is a stranger.  She seems to blur perceptions so you lose coordination and lose track of who’s on the battlefield and where.  That includes whoever you’re trying to hit, I think.  She seemed to have an always-on effect surrounding her at low strength and a concentrated, magnified use that seemed to require her eyes and focus to be on the victim.  She uses it to take people out of the fight.  If it affects you, don’t do anything, or people that aren’t Trial and Error might get hurt.”

That got nods.

“Two from Advance Guard are pursuing.  We’re going to go assist.”

“The sooner the better?” Foxtrot asked.

“Yeah,” Capricorn said.

“Lead the way,” she said.  “I want to see how these guys pulled their concept together.”

“Tress and Antares are fast.  The first responder types should follow them.  Everyone else, with me,” Capricorn gave the order.  “If you have questions, ask us, or call our phones.”

I was in the air a moment later, heading toward the last known location.  I gave Fume Hood a nod in passing.  Sveta and I had four people with us- two more who were able to get on a motorcycle or get in a vehicle within a few seconds of getting the go-ahead.  The engines were already running, and they peeled out.

It became clear that our fastest moving members of the group were pulling away from the members at the rear.  I turned around in the air, looking for Sveta, and I found her riding the roof of the rusted, post-apocalypse sedan that one cape had climbed into.

I gestured, and she thrwe out a hand, which I had to fly over to intercept and catch.  She pulled herself to me, which made flying momentarily difficult, slowing the pull somewhat as she drew near.

“I’ll take the lead group, you take the stragglers?” I asked.  “I go left, circle around to eleven o’clock.  You go right, two or three o’clock.  Remember Capricorn will be coming in for their six like a battering ram.”

“I go left,” she said.  “Look.  Trees, taller buildings.  That’s my kind of terrain.”

I nodded once, confirming.

She let go of me and pulled away with a force that was almost as intense as her arrival had been.

Foxtrot was one of the two in the lead.  She didn’t teleport, exactly, but as I flew, I could see glimpses of her off to the side, below me, just ahead of me.

I’d researched her, after she had ended up being a bit of a problem.  Foxtrot and Houndstooth had dated for a bit- and potentially still were.  It had been a thing early and then the team had grown and that faded into the background.  It said something that she’d, despite the concerns of the girlfriend being promoted, despite the fact she had no apparent record or history of a hero until about a year ago… she’d settled into a weird pseudo-leadership position, leading patrols a lot of the time.

For the moment, she was my ally in going up against the Trial & Error team.  I had to consider her power; on paper it was ‘harassment repositioning’.

She was speeding up.  All at once, she was at a rooftop ledge just above and in front of me – ready to leap down on top of me, despite the considerable distance to the ground.  As I flew closer to a rooftop to lower my profile, she was there, within arm’s reach.  I had a close-up view of her cute, smiling fox mask, bright costume with a crown and a chevron for the ‘hill’ worked into the lapel and sleeve, just above a Gold Morning remembrance armband.  Her hair was tied into a lopsided ponytail, and her hands rested on the rooftop ducts just in front of her.

Her power let her pick a target.  Her not-quite-teleports would position her advantageously to catch them off guard.  They were not-quite teleports because she didn’t appear out of nowhere so much as she was just there, ready, when the time came.

She picked out a target and her teleports centered on them.  What wasn’t on paper or available with a bit of research was the detail that she very clearly escalated.  In speed, in proximity, in how there was an ever-improving edge that each location she or her power was picking seemed to offer.

Then, like a switch had been flicked, she broke away.  The speed slowed and the target of focus changed to our companion.  Something-kite.

I was willing to bet Foxtrot had a bit of a history as a cape, but not as a hero.  The speed with which she’d assumed a place on her team and the intensity I felt as she closed in on me made me think she was more experienced than her record with the Kings suggested.

We were pulling ahead.  I could hear the tires as the trucks Prancer’s hires were driving turned corners.

I pulled out my phone and plugged in the earbud to make a call to headquarters.  It wasn’t Chris that replied.

“Heyy!” Kenzie answered.

“You’re supposed to be home and in bed.”

Kenzie audibly scoffed.  “At eight o’clock at night?  When stuff is happening?  No.  Don’t be silly.  Listen, I’ve got the others in on conference, Swansong and… we really need that one last code name.”

“Don’t even ask,” Rain said.  “The names I’m feeling are closest to right right now are terrible.  For now, if you need to call me something, use Precipice.”

“Precipice,” Kenzie said.  “Okay.  A bit of a mouthful to shout in a big fight, but Antares and Victoria are both long words.”

I expected Chris to say something about codenames or whatever.  I noticed the silence.

“Where’s Cryptid?” I asked.

“Gone,” she said.  “He made the calls and then he left.”

“Okay.  Can you give us eyes on things?  Cameras?  Specific locations on where these guys are, so we can close in?”

There was a pause.  My phone started a video, then started chugging along, before seeming to stop.

“One second,” Kenzie said.  “You’re outside of my setup.”

Then the video started.

Trial, Error, a crowd of hirelings with guns – there was no shortage of people looking for easier money, given the situation across the city.  I saw other capes I could dimly recognize, too.  Cleat.  Etna.  Crested.

“Can you tell the others?  Three more capes, twenty hirelings?  I’m going around the right side.”

“Got it.”

I landed on a rooftop, striding forward at a slower speed than I’d been flying.  The intent was to buy myself a moment when-

There.  A glimpse of Foxtrot.

“Additional capes, guns,” I said to the glimpse.  Her head snapped around to look at me.  “Proper B-listers.”

Her focus might have changed to me, because she recurred in my vicinity, as I continued forward on foot.

“This is supposed to be the drop-off,” I spoke my realization aloud.  “Spright and Shortcut are down there, making things difficult.  I think Flapper is airborne here too.”

I reached the rooftop’s edge, looking across to where I could see the trucks – the people around those trucks were so small that I couldn’t make out whether they were male or female.  The coveralls didn’t help.  Foxtrot appeared next to me, standing almost shoulder to shoulder with me, nose pointed out in the direction of those trucks and specks.

Kite landed beside me a second later.

“What are you gunning for, with this strategy, pulling everyone in together?” Foxtrot asked.

“That?  Is it really the priority?”

“No,” Foxtrot said.  She made an amused sound, “But that isn’t, down there.  Not until we have friends at our back or our side starts bleeding.  What’s this group thing?”

“It’s saying to hell with jurisdictions,” I said.  “To hell with getting credit for one win or another.  Coordinating to make sure we’re all going after the ones who count.  Sharing information.”

“Some like credit and having their own jurisdictions,” Kite’s voice was quiet, almost guilty.  “Not me, but I know people and I don’t think it will be that easy.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Well, in an ideal world, I’d like to do something here that would get us attention, enough that any abstainers would feel like they’d need to join in if they wanted a share of the limelight.  But that’s all secondary.  For now, we live and let live, and we fix what’s broken.”

“Others are reaching you now,” Kenzie reported through my phone.  I missed Kite’s response.

Sveta’s group.

“Tell them to hold back a second.  How far behind is Cap?”

“A few minutes.”

Okay.

Shortcut and Spright were mostly evading at this point.  They weren’t pushing in to attack, because Error didn’t let them do so without risk.  They’d draw in close, then pull away, leap onto something, wait until someone tried to come after them, and then move again.

The villains started to corner them, and Flapper made her appearance, diving down from above.  She landed, and long clothes-wings extended out to sweep the legs out from under a whole crowd of mooks.  Her sleeves raised up to become a barrier around her, a shield against incoming fire.

Then, with one herculean flap that drove people back with dust in their eyes, she took to the air again, weaving past the lights that illuminated the area and past power lines.  She had to run alongside the edge of a building to reach the roof.

They didn’t have a lot of space to maneuver.  The area was a loading bay to a large store, more or less a wide road without markings that sloped gently down to the bay doors that lined one wall of the brick building.  Neither of the vans had made it to the bay doors, if that was even the goal- the wheels had been slashed.  One had bumped up into a yellow-painted pillar, the front grille dented.

Round two.  We could use what we’d learned from the first round.  The buildings opposite the row of loading bay doors looked residential, which was inconvenient.  I could imagine the employees of the store lived there.

“If we corner them, and we will corner them,” I said.  “They’ll threaten civilians again.  Can your power get you inside to warn civilians, Fox?”

“Only if I have someone else I’m tracking that gets close.”

“I can get you close,” Kite said.

“Good,” I said.  “Lookout, are you there?”

I heard her yawn.  “I wish I was there.  But I’m here.”

“We’ll get you in the field,” I pledged.  “Communicate with Sveta, see if her contingent of capes has anyone who could help notify civilians and get them to evacuate.”

Kite and Foxtrot slipped away.  I gave them a wary look as they made their way to the ground, then around to what would be the ‘front’ the residential complex, if the back of the building was what faced this loading area and fight.

My attention fixed on Spright and Shortcut.  If they needed help- even if they were hit by something and fell, I was ready to fly to them.  They’d wanted to do this alone, they apparently felt capable.

They were evading, distracting, forcing Prancer’s hires to deal with them.  The trucks were disabled and the animals were within.  The villains’ prize.

Thoughts flickered through my head.  Of my mom telling me how that greed was a weakness.  One of many lessons.  Some, I felt, had contradicted others.  I was divided on whether that was because they had, or if it was because I’d been too young to properly digest, and what hadn’t digested had warped slightly with time.  What was right and what was wrong when hurting others.  What school was supposed to be for me, given my inevitable career and lifestyle.  Greed was a weakness and if the villains had something they prized then a lot could be done from standing between them and that prize.

That was what Spright and Shortcut were doing.

There were other thoughts.  In trying to get my parents to talk about Amy, the Wretch had typed out one word, asking for the story we’d never really gotten to hear in full.

M-A-R-Q-U-I-S.

My dad had told the tale.  Somewhere in there he’d said something about Marquis’ prize- Amy.  I remembered because anything to do with Amy had been something to fixate on, back then.  I remembered because there was something to the story that connected with what my mom had said, about the villains and their treasures.  Connecting those dots had helped bring the already vivid mental picture of the scene to life.

Fuck me, why was it that a memory about clarity and communication left me so painfully uneasy?  Beyond the fact that it was the Wretch in the scene, that the momentary peace I’d felt only highlighted how brainwashed I was.

It was the communication itself -not the thing being communicated or the context- that gnawed at me and made me want to hit something and destroy it.

Kenzie’s voice made me jump, and I was already on alert, watching to see if Spright or Shortcut got hurt.

“You’ve got a Cryptid inbound.  Don’t freak,” Kenzie said, over the phone.

“Don’t freak?” I asked.  “He actually made it here?”

“He flew.  Then he switched forms- he warned me it was an awkward form, in case I saw on camera.  And he yelled at me a lot about not watching him change, even though I wouldn’t ever do something that invades his privacy as badly as that.”

“Lookout.  This form?  I’m trying to keep control over this mess.  I need all the details you can give me, and I need to know if we need to turn Cryptid away before he engages.”

“He doesn’t usually use it because it’s screwed up,” she told me.  “That’s all I know.”

That wasn’t helpful.

Way off in the distance, barely distinguishable from the spots in my vision, I could make out Sveta’s unnaturally pale face.

On the roof of the residential building, I saw what had to be Cryptid’s form.

A face -one reminiscent of a certain teenage boy-was cast in a hard white, shell-like substance, face twisted in anger, with lines drawn deeper and bumps drawn out as ridges.  It was also, I had to notice, larger across than an unfolded umbrella.A metal ring that reminded me of the external headwear for his braces stuck out of the mask and plunged into the side of his head, almost as if it was fixing the mask in place.  Where his curly hair was usually pushed back by headphones, so hair was very close to head between brow and headphone band, the head of the form was striated slightly.

Definitely him.

He was big, built like a truncated caterpillar or tardigrade.  His skin was translucent, but given the lighting, with only the loading bay below really lit, the translucence mostly meant that the inside seemed very dark and only the edges that had more material to catch the light really appeared as pale as they were.

With flight and an eye for timing things to avoid revealing myself to the people on the ground, I skipped about two hundred feet to get from my building to Cryptid’s.

A caterpillar with a giant head, some shell, and short limbs that I could now see were bristling with weapons.  Claws and growths like barnacles surrounded the lower limbs, giving them a great deal of character compared to the expanses of translucent flesh.

He raised a clawed,  barnacle-crested hand in greetings.

Discs mounted on his two frontmost shoulders flickered on.

Projections of Ashley and Rain.

Here with us in spirit?  Or would they struggle through bad latency and being outside of Kenzie’s service area?

A masked Swansong walked with her hands clasped behind her back to get to the rooftop’s edge.  Depending on how the light hit her, her hologram nature would be more or less apparent.

Precipice, short-haired and only wearing a machine mask over his face, stepped back and looked up at Cryptid.

“You’re one weird guy,” Precipice said.

Cryptid put a clawed hand out.  It waggled in a so-so gesture.

“Cryptid,” I said.  “You’re weird as fuck.”

He shook his head, made the gesture again.

“It’s not the weird part,” Precipice said.  “He’s saying… iffy on the one?  Or on the guy part.”

That last one got an affirmative nod from Cryptid.

Cryptid stretched, craning his body to one side.  Translucent body distended, and insides pushed up against the skin.

In those insides, with the dim light, I could faintly make out dark shapes.  Misshapen skulls with almost circular mask-like faces at the front filled whole tracts of his insides.  Some had rings running through them like the greater form did, but at different angles and in different places.  As I looked, the skulls moved.

Tiny hands pressed up against the sides of his tardigrade body.  Dozens of them.

I found myself squirming, just seeing it.  They were sharp fingers, too.  They pushed at his flesh and the points threatened to cut through, spilling out the contents.

“No, no, no, no, no,” Precipice said.  “No.  No, sorry.  Call me if you need me.”

With that, the projection winked out of existence.  The camera that had been floating where the head was returned to Cryptid’s shoulder.

“Cryptid,” I said.  “This form-”

“Heads up!” Kenzie reported.  I heard a voice in the background.  “Okay, no, not you.  My team!  Heads up!  Capricorn is just now arriving and he’s wanting to blitz right away.  Give him reasons not to or he’s going to jump in.”

There was no reason not to let him jump in.  He knew well enough not to attack Error, with the risk.

I was ready to fly in- my feet momentarily left the ground, before finding it again.  I turned to Cryptid.

“Do not, under any, any circumstance, give birth to whatever those things are.  Not on this battlefield.”

He bristled, puffing up.

“We need this to go well,” I said.  “Please.”

He shifted position, bringing his rear end forward, settling down into the slouching kind of sit that some dogs and cats managed, when their construction didn’t normally allow for that degree of slouch.

Settling in to do nothing, it seemed.

I left it at that, because I had to.  I gave Swansong a small smile as I passed her.

I saw Etna reacting with a measure of panic as the heroes came in.  She backed up toward the loading bay door where there was more cover, separating herself from the other villains and their mooks.

There were guns, but guns drew attention.  It was attention from Fume Hood, who gassed the heaviest concentrations, attention from me.

Calm, collected.  If we were going to pull this off-

We had to do this right.

I hated how much I sounded like my mother in my own head, when I thought that.

The effect on the scene was little different from the old cowboy movies, when the convoy passed through a valley, only for the valley entrances and exits to be blocked, rocks pushed over.  In those scenes, the attackers appeared at the fringes, on either side of the valley, attacking from established, fortified positions.

So it was here.  Attacks from alleys and from rooftops.  They were surrounded.

Cleat balled up into a mass of spiked armor, then moved all at once, with a speed that surprised me.

Not him.  It wasn’t his power.

The path he traveled had a logic to it- it wasn’t a straight line.  It was a curve.

Nearly invisible in the gloom, with no lights shining on that specific area, Trial had thrown chain to Cleat, and now Cleat was his wrecking ball.

Massive, crushing swings raked through building faces and toward the good guy capes.

Cleat came around again, whipcrack fast.

This time I was the focus of the strike.  It came at me, and I knew I wouldn’t have time to run.

In that same moment, Error hit me.

Even an accidental deflect could send that wrecking ball into ten or more people, with how Error’s power worked.

I tried to fly out of the way, and I knew I couldn’t.

A hand at my shoulder adjusted my flight path.  A yank pulled me away from the human-sized flail.  I landed on my back, the impact traveling through my arm to the bullet wound.  Concrete below me, Sveta knelt above me.  the sky was dark, and it smelled like violence.  People approached, coming after me.

Fume Hood lurked nearby, her hands out, three shiny spheres the size of billiard balls floating around her hands.  She let them fly their courses, each one rocketing into a dense collection of the villains before detonating into a cloud of gas.

Error was focused on someone else again, no heavy pressure settling around me.  It freed me to deal with Cleat.  Foxtrot was closing in around Trial, but her ability to appear at random or at strategic points close by her target didn’t really jibe with the fact that Trial was swinging his teammate around him, clearing a forty-foot radius around himself of anyone with any measure of self preservation.

I rose up into the air, ready to meet it.

I had one shot, for best effectiveness.  I watched as the wrecking ball made its rotation, hit a wall, and then bounced off with almost more momentum than before.

He was manipulating the chain to make it so Cleat could be swung, keeping it out of my reach.

Foxtrot closed in on him, narrowing her range for harassment.  One appearance to his left, ducking beneath the swinging chain.  She kicked him in the back of the leg, then the small of his back.  She had a weapon in hand-

She was elsewhere.  Swinging-

And stopping.  Errors influence, no doubt.  Foxtrot couldn’t follow through without danger.

Balance found, back now straight, he swung the Cleat-ball in one rotation, counter-clockwise.  A second rotation.  A thir-

Cleat hurtled toward me as Trial used other chains to lunge in my direction, putting the flail on course to hit me.

This time my timing was right- no confusing changes in direction.  Just hitting that cape-turned-weapon with everything I had, aura-wise.

Cleat uncurled, yet still flew toward me.  He’d lost his grip on the chain.  He’d carry forward, bounce off of things, and maim or kill everyone he contacted.

I threw up the wretch, and I caught him, full-bodied, the Wretch’s arms, the Wretch’s chest and faces.  The impact made a sound that was almost enough to deafen me.  The spikes scraped against my armor on their way down.

He hit the ground, tried to rise up, and then stumbled, landing on hands and knees.

Etna, having retreated, was now faced with a huge numbers disadvantage, with no help from her peers.  A surrender.

Crested was a mix of offense and defense, but he was up against capes who were pure offense or pure defense.  Fume Hood blasted him, and as our guys backed away to safer ground that was free of the noxious gas, Crested had no such option.

But Trial and Error- that was a team that was tough to crack.

People closed in, but we had dealt some damage to ourselves, thanks to Error.  Nobody wanted to be the next to hurt a friend or alienate a potential ally with an attack turned the wrong way.

“We had this,” Shortcut said, behind me.

“You still have it,” I said, watching Error and Trial.  “It’s yours.”

“We might not be able to beat them, but they’ll have a hell of a time fighting us,” Shortcut said.  “They go to any contacts, any place they think is safe, we’re on them.  They want to go home?  We’ll be after them.  We will win because they- because crime does not have a place in this world.

I felt that crime as a whole was taking root too easily to be so easily dismissed.  That we couldn’t deal with Trial and Error was another problem.

We had the power, but not the means to use it.

“Cryptid is saying he could climb to a point above them and unload his cargo on their heads.  Nonlethal,” Kenzie reported, over coms.

“Let’s not,” Capricorn said, within earshot of me.

Sveta joined us.

Above us, Cryptid crawled along rooftops, peering down.  Beside us, Spright was talking to Shortcut.

We had them cornered, but there was no way to follow through.  Not when Error could turn a simple action like an execution-style shot, into something more risky for someone in the area.

I glanced at the damaged residential buildings.  Not a soul, no lights, all dark.  It looked like we’d evacuated fine – the contents of rooms exposed to the world looked fairly fine.

“Just take the vans away and they lose,” I said.

At my statement, some people headed to the overlong vans, climbing into the driver’s seats.

If they won’t fight alongside us, we’ll take away the rewards and satisfaction.

One of the trucks started up.

Trial rose up, using chains to climb.  Sveta grabbed two.  Capricorn created his motes.  Chris- he burbled, I supposed.

I checked the coast was clear, and then I brought the Wretch out.

The associated emotions were heavy, a weight on my shoulders.  But he lashed out and I deflected.  I felt Error’s power take hold of me and dodged instead of fighting back, and I felt a measure of triumph as someone else took my place on the defensive line.

We were working more as a collective now.  Trading off, being aggressive, being different, without judgment.  This was what I wanted this organization to be.  It would take tuning.

I slowly turned up my aura while I stared down Trial.  Error was in the background, ready to act, but she wasn’t sticking anything on me because I wasn’t doing anything.  Not as far as she could tell- my aura didn’t reach her.

I stared down Trial.  The second truck started up.  Both started to make their limping way away from the scene.  Trial wore a metal mask that covered the upper half of his face and some of his chin.  It exposed enough that I could see his expression change, as his prize drove away.

He could fight us and do okay at it, but it was mostly a stalemate, as long as he and Error were the tag team they were supposed to be.   Like this, however, he got nothing.

People like him would get nothing.

“Fine,” he said.  “You win.”

“Thank you,” I replied, as coldly as I was able.  The audience watched with careful eyes.  One or two might have had phones out to gather evidence, now switched to video mode to track anything particular.

“You got the cargo.  Let us go.”

“Not going to happen,” Capricorn answered.

“You can’t beat us, not without paying a price,” Trial growled.

“If you want to pull an all-nighter,” Shortcut said, “I think we’ll have more friends turning up than you will.  You lost already.  Anything more is theater.”

“Oh, but I do like theater,” Spright said.

Shortcut and Spright were taking point now.  It was technically their arrest, and I didn’t care about jurisdiction.  I cared about word of mouth.

“This is what you’re wanting to do more regularly?” Sveta asked me, her voice quiet.  “It’s not bad, but…”

“This.  But more,” I said.  “Bigger targets, bigger numbers, more focus.”

I saw her nod.

“Which part are you nodding at?”

“Targets,” she said.  “Focus.  Mainly targets.  There are too many dangerous people out there who need to be put down or dealt with.”

Others who’d been lurking at the periphery were making their appearances.  We had our own cheats there.  Our two projections.  Chris.  The perimeter guard was now working to pressure the villains.

They had nowhere to go.  They were outnumbered ten to one.  They could fight and they could make the arrests hurt, but there would be costs.

We’d won.  They would cave before anything else.  I’d use my power again in a moment.

For now, we’d let them be stubborn.

“You want bigger?” Capricorn asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“‘Bigger’ can mean different things,” Rain said.

“In this case?” I asked.  I lowered my voice until it was barely audible.  “We might need enough in the way of power, people, resources, and tools to defeat a Goddess.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Beacon – 8.5

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

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.

Mayday
Re: Proposal
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.

Antares
Re:Re: Proposal
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.

Mayday
Re:Re:Re: Proposal
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!”

“What capes?”

“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.

“He knows!”

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?

Nunchucks.

“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.

“What’s up?”

“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.

Yeah.

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?

Come on.

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.

“Cryptid.”

“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.

Like antlers.

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.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Beacon – 8.4

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

“Crystalclear,” Capricorn said.  “As employee, or-”

“No,” Ashley said.  “Inmate.  Rain was paying more attention to the employees.  I was focused on…”

She paused.

“The competition?” Capricorn tried.

“The pecking order,” was her reply.  “They limit contact, make us keep a certain distance from one another, but we cross paths and we see each other.”

“Not solitary, not segregated confinement,” Cryptid said.  He was standing by the picnic-style table with its broad top, rather than sitting.  He spoke differently when he was in costume.

“Kind of segregated,” Rain said.

“It used to be fully segregated,” Ashley said.  “There are too many of us now.  They can’t send each of us individually to go exercise and still give us enough exercise.”

Rain put his elbows on the table, hands together, cracking his knuckles, before cocking his head to look at Ashley.  “I haven’t seen Crystalclear, and you didn’t mention him.”

“It was recent.  The main yard isn’t that far from my place.  You can see it from one of the windows.  The boys go to their windows to look when the women exercise, and the women go to the window when boys exercise.  I heard the jeering and went to look.  He’s recognizable from a distance.”

“I don’t have a view of the yard from my place,” Rain said.

“You draw the shittiest hands in life,” Cryptid said.

“I guess.  I’m as red blooded as anyone, but I feel like I’d watch for five minutes and then get bored.”

“Five minutes is long enough for most,” Cryptid said.

“Maybe for you,” Tristan said.

I rolled my eyes.

Lookout looked from me to the boys.  “Oh.  SO gross.”

“Yes,” Ashley said, tilting her head Lookout’s way in a conspiratorial way.  “Keep this in mind when you’re older and interested in your first boys.”

“In my defense and in defense of my gender, I’m not part of this,” Rain said.  “This is those two.”

“It’s standard teenager talk,” Cryptid said.

“Everything’s fair game, so long as nobody’s uncomfortable,” Capricorn added.

“Okay,” Lookout said.

“Um.  Sorry, I’m feeling a bit awkward.  Can we just go back to talking shop?” Sveta asked.  When eyes turned her way, she shrugged as best as she was able.

“Okay,” Cryptid said.  “Sure.”

“Thank you,” Sveta said, “Where were we?  Crystalclear?”

“Crystalclear,” Capricorn confirmed.  “From the good guy side in the community center attack.  You’ve talked to him, Victoria?”

“Yeah.  Fume Hood and Tempera didn’t mention him going to prison,” I said.

“Maybe they don’t know,” Ashley said.

“Probable.  He doesn’t seem like the criminal type.”

“Spooky, that you never really know what your teammates are like,” Sveta said.  “Do you think he’d talk if you reached out?”

“I can try,” I said.

“I thought he seemed out of place, he’s a contact of yours, and from what little I saw, he was talking with others.  A lot.  That’s not always easy,” Ashley said.  “Guards weren’t really pulling him away, I think because he’s got a past record as a hero.  He seemed like a good person to ask.”

“How does that work?” Capricorn asked.  “Talking to others.  There’s talking across the balconies, right?”

“At yard time, four buildings with sixteen people get out at the same times,” Rain said.  “We get split up into areas.  There’s a weights cage, a basketball court with one hoop, two people allowed at a time, but you can’t play with someone if you’ve had any altercations.”

“The basketball hoop is the Queen’s court,” Ashley said.  “Top woman on this side of the prison, Llorona, gets the court and nobody argues if they want to have a good stay.  She invites different people every day.”

“Similar for the guys who get out around the same time I do, but they hog the court,” Rain said.  “Coalbelcher and his right hand man get the court every day.  It’s rare that someone else gets to go.  You basically have to kill someone to earn enough respect to get in.”

“If you go that far you’re never leaving,” Capricorn said.  “Maybe they figure they might as well get to know you, if you’re committing to being a lifer.”

Rain snorted, a laugh without humor.

“Court, weights, and…” I prompted.

“And the main yard,” Rain said.  “There are a lot of rules for all of it.  Weights cage, you get seven minutes at a time, have to clean up and reset the area as part of those seven minutes, or you don’t get a turn for a week.  You go from there to the yard, next person in the yard gets a turn.  Court, you can’t have a record of altercations with other prisoners.  Yard is where most go.”

“Most people run laps,” Ashley said.  “You have to stay a set distance from others.  If you don’t, your ankle beeps until you get away.  We can’t stand close to one another, but there’s leeway if you’re in the middle and doing something active.  Some throw or kick balls.  Talking happens while running thirty feet behind someone or playing catch.  You’re always far enough apart you have to raise your voice, and so you can’t conspire with anyone.”

“I’m not really social,” Rain said.  “I haven’t really tried, but it’s hard enough to run that long and not look like a wuss.  People try to lap you, too.  They’ll signal the guards, guards call out for you to stop in a corner and let them pass.”

“They do it on purpose,” Ashley said.  “You get the people who run together, just close enough to not cause trouble, talking while they run, others try to lap people, shame them, show off their stamina, and the rest are either trying not to look bad or they give up and throw balls.”

“Sounds right,” Rain said.

“Can you talk to Crystalclear?” I asked.

“You might have better luck than me.  I haven’t seen him yet.  They keep some buildings of people segregated from others.  Like, they don’t want Fallen in the same yard as me, you know?”

“You have a better chance of ending up in the same yard with him than I do,” Ashley said.

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “Sure.  I mean, if the chance comes up, I’ll try.”

“And I’ll try on my end,” I said.  “I’m not sure if it’ll ring alarm bells, me being too obstrusive, but I’ll see what I can do.”

Rain nodded, cracking his knuckles again.  “While you’re at it?  Could you keep an eye on Cradle and Love Lost?”

“We have been,” Lookout said.

“Cradle is in custody here,” I explained.  “Other end of this complex.  I wasn’t able to check in for his meeting with the court processors, because I had physio.  I would have skipped, but Capricorn had it.”

“I looked in, sat in the back,” Capricorn said.  “It went by quick.  He’s been doing a lot of business, which is working against him now, because he can’t explain where his money came from, but he doesn’t have many friends, either.  Not while Tattletale is freezing him out.”

“She’s staying out of it?” Rain asked.

“She’s staying out of it,” I confirmed.  “As far as we can tell.  It’s hard to know for sure with the masterminds.”

“Do you trust her?” Ashley asked.  “Or will she try something?”

“No, I don’t trust her,” I offered up half of a laugh to go with it.  “But I do believe her, I guess, when it comes to this.”

“That simplifies things,” Sveta said.  “I don’t think she’d breach a contract, written or unwritten, if it’d hurt her ability to do business.  I believe her too.  And I’ve been on the same side as her, I guess.”

I nodded.

“What about Love Lost?” Rain asked.

“She’s hanging out with Nailbiter, Sidepiece, Disjoint and that group,” Capricorn said.

“Oh, my friends,” Ashley said.

“I think she’s in charge,” Lookout said.  “I don’t know how that works, someone who can’t talk being a leader.”

“Keep an eye on her?” Rain asked.  “She’s stronger than she was.  Cradle too.  The bias of power shifts around a lot between our group.  Since Snag’s gone, it’s… stormier.  The pendulums swing further and harder.”

“We will,” Capricorn said.

“Scapegoat’s here, Seir’s here,” Rain heaved out a sigh as he said it.  “Valefor is in a hospital with one of these ankle bombs attached.  Mama Mathers is…”

“Isolated,” I said.  “Classified location, given the likelihood the Fallen would try to get her out.”

“I don’t know why they would,” Sveta said.  “She ruled by fear, everyone’s finally free.”

“I think being controlled and managed, having that firm a hand on you, it’s reassuring to some types,” Rain said.  “Like how some people can’t handle it after they get out of prison.  They no longer know how to be free.  She’s had control for a long time.”

“Creepy,” Sveta said.

“Definitely,” Rain said.  “Just… keep me updated?  I feel so out of the loop, stuck in this weird prison-town, ghost-town setup, a universe away from you guys.”

“Three universes away, if you consider the number of steps you need to take to get here,” Cryptid said.

“Thanks, Chris.  Thanks.  That really helps with the weird disconnected, homesick feeling I’m wrestling with.”

“I’m sorry, Rain.  We’ll send a care package, okay?” Lookout said.

“Okay.  Just to warn you, I think they’re pretty careful about what they let me have, though, given how I’m a tinker.  They measure out all the materials I get and what goes into Ashey’s hands.”

“Okay.  Books should be okay, right?  And you’re online, so we can message you?”

“Yeah, but they look at everything we send, so… secret identities, and be aware our enemies could be getting the same info.”

“I’ll message you, we’ll catch you up,” Capricorn said.

“Cool,” Rain said.  “Just keep me in the loop, and I think I can do this.  Maybe.  It’s the boredom that’s making me second guess what I felt before, that I can ride out this entire sentence, whatever it winds up being.”

“I’m patient,” Ashley said.  “We’ll entertain ourselves with our side of the investigation.  I won over Llorona, I think.”

“The Queen of the basketball court?” Sveta asked.

“Yes.  Everyone meets with her, if they’re here for a couple of weeks without incidents.  She keeps the peace and smooths out wrinkles, so they let her.”

“I would have thought you’d have to play a good game of basketball to win her over,” Capricorn said, pausing while Ashley nodded.  He added,  “And your hands aren’t working.”

“Yes.  That’s one way.  And I’ve never played basketball.  I’d lose if it came down to it.”

“Then how did you pull that off?” Capricorn asked.

Ashley smiled.  “When she acted like she was better than me because I wouldn’t play, I tore my left hand off in front of her.”

“Awesome!” Lookout reacted to the self-dismemberment with awe and glee, because of course she did.

“That’d do it,” Cryptid, by contrast, was almost smug, even though he hadn’t had anything to do with it.

“I think she likes me now.”

“You do realize staff are watching you, and they report these kinds of things, right?” Sveta asked.

“Yes.  I told them I needed maintenance, no sweat.”

“It was such a mess,” Rain was almost despondent in tone, contrasted with Lookout’s excitement and Cryptid’s satisfaction.  “I’m the maintenance, you know.  And there’s blood with forced removals like that.  Like, hurry, hurry, get dressed, shoes on, and run, because she might not live if it’s not plugged in right.”

“Spooky,” Sveta said.

“Messy!” Rain exclaimed, to Sveta.  To Ashley, he said, very seriously, “Messy.”

“Letting the Queen place me at the bottom of the totem pole would have been worse,” Ashley said.  “It helps Rain, too.”

Helps?” Rain asked.

A buzzer sounded across the complex.

“We’ll talk about this later,” Rain said.

“Time’s up?” I asked.

I saw their nods.

“Aww, what?  No.  We just sat down,” Lookout said.

“Another time,” Ashley said.

“Keep an eye out for the care package,” Lookout said.

“It’s not like I’m going to be out when it arrives,” Ashley said.  She stood from the picnic table.

“I wasn’t sure what to do but I thought books would be best,” Lookout said.  “They were always something I went to when I couldn’t sleep.  I had stacks of them on my bed, piled high enough they could have tipped over and bruised me.  I’d sleep with my head on a book sometimes.”

“I don’t think I’m going to do that,” Ashley said.  “But I’ll read what you send me.  C’mon.”

Lookout went to her.  They hugged.

The buzzer sounded again, more intense.  Rain’s anklet beeped once.

“I should go,” Rain said.  “They’ll get pissy if we get in the way of schedules.”

“Yeah.  I can stay, I think.  It’s my yard time,” Ashley said.  “They’ll let me know if it isn’t.”

“Then I’m going to duck out,” Rain said.

He clasped hands with Capricorn, then the handshake became a half-shake, half-hug thing.  “Keep us up to date on that team thing.”

“Yeah,” Capricorn said.

We parted ways, our group heading back toward the gate, while Ashley walked on the other side of the road.

Guards were out, each with positions in mind.  They fanned out, each armed and uniformed, their belts heavy with gear.  For the most part, they were isolated – one guard to a given location.  There was one case where the guards moved in a group of three, with something of a determined cast to their features.

We were almost at the gate when Lookout took a hard right turn, striding away from the group.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

She was silent.

Something was wrong.  I lifted off, but in that same moment, Sveta’s arm went out, propelled by tendrils.  She grabbed Lookout by the shoulder, stopping her in her tracks.

I wasn’t the only one to look in the direction she’d been going.

Off by one of the buildings, a woman with black hair and a few tattoos was leaning against the side of a building, camouflaged.  She was a considerable distance away, to the point where I couldn’t make out details of her face, tattoos, or outfit – only a top with a ‘v’ cut at the neck and a frilly flap that went from collar to shoulder, black pants, and shoes.

“Monokeros!” Ashley shouted the name.  When she had Monokeros’ attention, she shook her head.

The woman laughed in response, audible even from a considerable distance.

The woman stepped away from the wall, thumbs hooked in pockets, and started walking away.  We’d been traveling north to south, and Monokeros had been a few hundred feet to our west.  She walked north, which put her behind us and off to the side.

A non threat, supposedly.

Ashley stared, watching the woman as she left.

“Fuck,” Capricorn said.  “You okay, Lookout?”

“It was like getting hit with Victoria’s aura, but without the jittery oh-shit-ness of it,” Lookout said.  “Purer, stronger.”

I folded my arms, thumb hooked into sling.

“I pretty much only ever get the jittery oh-shit part from Victoria,” Capricorn said.

“Same,” Cryptid said.

“I’ll talk with her,” Ashley said.  Her expression was cold.  “She was testing me.  That can’t stand.”

Don’t get yourself in more trouble,” Sveta said.

“She fucked with Lookout.”

“Stick with the rules,” I said.  “Use the system against her.  Report her, let them handle it and change their policies.”

“No, don’t use the system,” Lookout said.

We looked at her.

“If you do, they’ll say the easiest fix is to not let me come back.  They’ll say it’s too dangerous to let kids come here, and then I won’t be able to see you.”

“They’d punish her, not you,” Sveta said.

“They might punish me.”

“I’m on the kid’s side,” Cryptid said.  “Institutions are dumb.”

Ashley drew in a deep breath.  Holy shit, she looked more pissed than she had with Beast of Burden.  I could imagine the only thing that was stopping her was that her potential target was out of reach.

“Leave it,” Lookout pleaded.  “It’s fine.  Please?”

“I’m not going to leave it,” Ashley’s voice was quiet.  “But I won’t make it an incident.”

“Take care of yourself,” I said.  “If you let her get to you, she wins.”

“It’s fine,” Ashley said.  “I’m betting she’ll go back to her cell to hide, the coward.  I’m going to run, and I’ll think for a while before doing anything.”

“Good plan,” I said.  “Except the doing part, I’m worried.”

“It’s fine,” she replied, with a tone that suggested it was also final.

“Okay,” I said, glancing at the others.

“I’m sorry things ended on that note,” Ashley said.  She set a hand on Kenzie’s head.

“Me too,” Lookout said.

“Don’t let this place get to you,” Sveta said.  “Remember your goals.”

“Yeah.  Always focused on the future, hm?” Ashley asked.

“Exactly.  Just get through today.”

Ashley stepped back, like it took a measured effort to separate herself, then she smiled.  With that, she left, heading back into the deeper prison, while leaving us to enter the gate.

Capricorn and Sveta each placed a hand on one of Lookout’s shoulders.  I glanced at Cryptid, but I couldn’t read the expression he wore, Lookout’s device masking his face.

There were people to keep tabs on, both enemies and on our side.

Our hideout was coming together.  Kenzie’s computers were hooked up, monitors and projected screens arranged.  Whiteboards and desks were being moved around.  Ashley’s whiteboard with ‘Swansong’ across the top in fancy script was now joined by ‘Rain’.  The preliminary notes on what they needed and what they’d found were going up on their shared board.

The board we’d freed up listed the other teams, from the Wardens, the Guild, all the way down to the pairing of Fume Hood and Tempera.  It stood at the back of the room, furthest from Kenzie’s workstation.  People we’d rope in.

Kenzie’s projectors started showing images from her camera feeds.  A couple were from Cedar Point.  The graffiti had been painted over in places, or had chipped away because some of the yellow paint they’d co-opted and used had been meant to draw temporary lines for outlining buried power cabling or highlighting spots for danger, not to paint something in a way that lasted for weeks or months, across weather changes.

Tristan’s laptop stalled as it loaded the page.  I’d stepped away to sort out whiteboard markers while it took its time, and now I approached again.  He was wearing only the lower portion of his armor, the upper half just the under-armor part that prevented chafing.  Sveta was beside him, hands clasped behind her back as she bent over to a degree that most would find untenable after a minute or so.

The page that had only loaded ninety percent of the way was a map with a list of crimes reported, as compiled and shared out by the police of the Megalopolis.  Citizens managed it, apparently, listening in on the police scanners and putting in push-pin style markers on the map.

A slice of the map was gray, refusing to load in, but the overall situation was clear, especially as Tristan moved the slider.  Petty crimes were up.  People were cluing in that the heroes and the police didn’t have the authority or power to arrest everyone.

In Cedar Point, things were ‘better’.  The vacancies were filling, as people relocated here from places nearer to the devastated portals, the villains were scattered with only a few lingering and not really conducting business.  Even here, according to the map, there were burglaries, robberies, and concerned citizens reporting that they’d seen drug deals or drug-related activity.

It was a ‘good’ area, with an influx of hopeful people and criminals still spooked from the recent crackdown and collapse of their power structure- there were bad areas too, and there were areas that had been bad, that had been lowered a few notches by the portal fiasco, and by the threat of war.

“We need to figure out how to handle this,” Capricorn said.

“Is that even possible?” Sveta asked.  “Handling this?”

“Let me refresh before I try to answer that,” Tristan said.

He refreshed.  Some of the site elements lingered, while the map reloaded.  I bit my tongue rather than comment or complain.

“I’ll have you guys hooked up to my internet in five or ten minutes,” Kenzie said.  “Things will be faster then.”

“Please God,” Tristan said.  “Thank you.”

I looked at the other pins on the loading map.

“Domestics, assaults, threats, noises at late hours,” Sveta recited, listing pins.

“Those are rare,” I said.  “At least compared to some of these others we see over and over again.  Look.  Robbery.  Dealing.  It’s about resources.  It’s about people feeling the cold and not feeling ready to face months of it, of darkness and food shortages.”

“That’s not law and hero stuff,” Sveta said.  “That’s infrastructure.  We can’t do much about that.”

“Drops in the bucket,” Chris said.  He was standing beside Kenzie’s chair, watching.

“I could help a little if they let me give them tech,” Kenzie said from her workstation.  “But they won’t.  Speaking of tech, second box going live.  Additional systems, monitors, and information, no super internet just yet, sorry.  We’re booting up in five, four, three, two, one-”

There was a pause where a second or two passed.  She kicked the box to her left.  Projected images began to fill up more of the walls.  News having to do with capes, with politics, with crime and industry.  Some terrible newspaper comics popped up briefly, before being replaced by more pertinent things.

“And zero,” she said.  “Tinker internet hookup next to come.”

In one area, according to a headline on a news ticker, Mayday was getting a hard time.  The territories that Advance Guard was managing were seeing civilian pushback, citing Mayday’s lack of leadership in years before Kenzie had even joined his team.

I glanced at her, but she was busy enough that she didn’t see it.  I watched as it lingered on the ticker before other news pushed it off.

The map had loaded incompletely again, with more gray than before.  Tristan groaned loudly in frustration, walking away.

“We can’t make this about riot duty and supporting a crumbling infrastructure,” I said.  “We can’t be extra police officers, with some extra capabilities and a lot of access and procedural stuff missing.  It’s inefficient.”

“We stop going after criminals?”  Tristan asked.

“We go after the key ones, prioritize the worst, and the ones our team can break up.  The courts are under enough strain as is.  They aren’t going to appreciate us sending petty drug dealers their way.”

“And there’s subversive, hostile elements in the city,” Sveta said.  “Earth C’s soldiers.”

“That’s the big reason we’re needing to coordinate,” I said.  “Them.  The Fallen.  Maybe Love Lost’s group.  Possibly Prancer’s remnants, depending on how resentful they are.  Those who aren’t playing along or who pose too big a risk.”

Tristan added, “And each group or major location may be targeted by hostile powers.  Dragon, Defiant and others at the top know, but…”

“We have to keep an eye on the prison,” Kenzie said.  “Ashley and Rain.”

“Yeah,” Capricorn said.  “Among other things.”

“I was thinking about it,” Lookout said.  She swiveled around in her chair.  “It’s a lot.”

“It’s a lot,” I agreed.

“We can pick something to do, and we can go after it, but other stuff is going to come up while we’re doing that, even if we’re really, really good about it,” Kenzie said.  “Even if we get the other teams to coordinate and we’re really, really, really fast with getting other teams to cooperate with us, it’s going to be hard.”

“Maybe impossible,” Chris said.

“Why does you chiming in like that make me suspicious?” Tristan asked.

“Me?” Chris asked.

“You’re hanging out with Kenz, no snark, no hostility, you’re being quiet, you’re helping-”

“Because he likes me,” Kenzie said.

“No, it’s because,” Chris said.  “I’m not stressed about being in the latest of a long, annoying line of institutions.  Don’t put me in a hospital, orphanage, jail, school, I’m good.”

Good might be overstating it,” I said.

“You two are conspiring,” Tristan said.

I studied their expressions, carefully neutral.  Kenzie had the hint of a smile on her face, but she mostly seemed jittery, heel on the top of a cardboard box, foot jiggling.

“I can see it,” I said.

“It’s not a conspiracy.  Can I just make my pitch, explain how I see things, and you can correct me if I’m wrong?” Kenzie asked.

“Go ahead,” Sveta told her.

“This is a big thing.  I’m going to end up working really hard either way, but if we go the way I was just talking about, where we try to do one big thing at a time and other stuff keeps coming up and getting in the way, we’ll get buried, we’ll start slipping, and I’ll end up working super late to build stuff we super duper absolutely need.”

“It’s possible.  We could establish rules to avoid that,” Sveta said.

Or,” Kenzie said.  “We agree we’re in trouble.  If things were really terrible in a fight, Victoria would stop holding back and would hit hard to smash people to smithereens.  Tristan and Byron would use some of their tougher tricks, like stalactite rain or drowning people in rock.”

“I’ve never had cause to do that.  I’m not even sure I could.”

“Sveta-” Kenzie started.  “There’s maybe possibly a situation where things were dangerous and you’d leave that body.”

“Let’s not discuss that,” Sveta said.  “I don’t want to entertain the idea.  I know how bad it could be.”

“My point is, we’re all really strong.  Sometimes there’s a situation where we stop being nice about it and just do our best.”

I saw the almost-smile become more of a smile.  Because her means of self expression was different, with a smile meaning something totally different, I had to parse eyebrows, eyes, mouth and body language individually and then piece it together to read her.

Worry, guilt?

“What did you do?” I asked.

She froze.

“Smooth Kenz,” Chris murmured.

“Fuck off if you’re not going to help,” she said, under her breath.  “I figured we needed all the info we could get.”

“You didn’t take Dragon’s files, did you?” Tristan asked.

“No!  No.  Nothing like that,” Kenzie said.

I imagined everyone in the room breathed a faint sigh of relief at that.  Even Chris probably would’ve, and she’d apparently included him in her plan, confiding in him.

Taking Dragon’s files would’ve been a potential shitstorm of epic scale.

“I took over the prison security system, so we can use their surveillance” Kenzie said.  “And Chris and I kind of worked together to get cameras inside.”

She hit a key.  The feeds along the wall switched to footage from the cameras spaced across the prison.  A few of the scenes flicked between multiple perspectives across the building.

I closed my eyes.

“Chris, why?” Tristan asked.

“You’re getting on my case?” Chris asked.  “She’s as culpable or more culpable than I am.”

“She’s two years younger than you and you’re supposed to be a good role model.”

“I failed at that a while ago, Tristan.  And she’s right.  We need this, because we can’t take the long road every time.  We were going to end up doing this anyway.”

“Why didn’t you just ask?” Sveta asked.

“Because,” Kenzie said.  “It’s the kind of thing where it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than ask permission.  Plus if I got caught, you all can claim I’m the ditzy tinker kid and you had no idea what I was doing.  It’s proof against even lie detector capes.”

There were some out there, in Foresight.

“But I didn’t get caught and now the chances are really slim we get caught.  Just like my being on their server.  Now that it’s done… I think it’s done, I can tell you guys and you can decide what you want to do with it.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Um.  Here.”

She reached for a book at the edge of her workstation, checked it front and back, and tossed it to me.

A novel of the sort that was aimed at young adolescents.  It was one I’d read a long time ago, but had largely forgotten.  I remembered more of the movie of the same name.

Examining it, I found the circle of the ‘o’ in word ‘Holt’ on the spine had been colored in black.  The book opened and closed, with nothing shaking out of it.

I pried at it, got my fingernails under it, and pulled it out.  It was the eye camera that Kenzie had placed in Ashley’s eye.  It had phased into the book, the extra bits almost invisible, they were so phased out.

“The books you were talking about,” I said.

“My care package.  It comes with a way to keep a better eye on things.”

“You helped?” I asked Chris.

“The tech I had on me that they looked at was what let her get access to the security cameras,” Chris replied.

“Let me get this straight,” Tristan said.  “You hacked a secure facility.  Using a… virus?”

“Vector of attack,” Kenzie said.  “Yes.”

“Chris feigns being an asshole to buy time to hack in-”

“I didn’t feign, thank you,” Chris said.

“You had and have control of prison oversight now,” Tristan continued down his list.

“Yes,” Kenzie replied.

“And you snuck in a camera- multiple cameras.”

“One for Ash and one for Rain,” Kenzie said.  “So I can show you stuff, and we can communicate with them, and it gets a lot easier to do stuff.  Look, look, I can show you-”

She swiveled around and then hit buttons

“Kenzie, stop,” Sveta said.  “We need to discuss this, then we need to discuss what we do with the aftermath.”

“Too late.  Feed’s up,” Kenzie said.  “Sorry.”

“I’ll cover your entire system in stone if you aren’t careful,” Tristan said.  “Soak it in water.  You’re getting carried away.”

“I’m saying we might need to get a little carried away because the whole situation is carried away.  I had to do this little dodgy thing, but it means we can communicate better with them, and we definitely need that.  It means we can communicate more to other teams, and that’s super important.”

The projected icon showed a slice of Ashley’s cell.

“This is old footage,” Kenzie said.  “About half an hour ago.  She figured it out.”

The image distorted, the book’s perspective shifting.

As Ashley’s prosthetic hand reached in, almost covering up the lens in entirety, it was momentarily possible to see the artificial texture of the thumb-tip.

“I can’t get you out,” she murmured, her voice amplified by the speakers.

There was a thud as the book was allowed to fall to the table.

“Problem?” Ashley asked, audible through the computer speakers.

“I need your claws.”

“They’re mine, and I’m not about to hand them over.  I like looking dangerous.”

“To pry something free.  And for something else.”

“Pry?  Now I’m curious.”

“Voice down for the camera.  Come.  Here, see the ‘o’?”

“I see it.  You want it cut out?”

“No!” Kenzie said, to the wall.  The wall and the two Ashleys weren’t in positions to hear.

“No.  Bring your blade this way, pry.”

“Don’t scratch the edges of the lenses,” Kenzie said, again talking to the wall.

There was no echo of her statement this time.  The Ashleys worked in silence.

“There.”

“Got it.  Here we are.  I’ve seen this before.”

“It looks like someone wrapped barbed wire around an ice pick and put a lens on the butt end.”

“A small ice pick, maybe.  I need you to stick that into my eye.”

Me?

“You.”

Kenzie’s eyes widened.

“Didn’t leave instructions?” Chris asked.

“I… kind of forgot that her hands are wonky right now and her sister’s hands are even more dangerous.”

“We might need to turn it on,” Ashley said.

“It’s on!” Kenzie hurried to say, shouting at the wall.  “Don’t flip the switches or you’ll change polarity or bias, or you’ll turn it off and it’ll become a weird stabby knife instead of one that goes through eyes!”

They couldn’t hear us, and a phone call or message was a procedural nightmare that would take a while to arrange and use.  Even if we did tip them off about what was going on, we’d risk the ‘good guys’ finding out about the cameras.

I folded my arms.

The camera’s focus changed.  The strange Ashley had the lens gripped by the flats of four blade fingers.  The points of the fingers extended a bit beyond the pad or ‘head’ of the eye camera.  If everything went in smoothly, the points would bury inside the eye before the object fully did.

Ashley took it, not flinching as the point touched home.  Other parts of the camera flowed in.  The points of her sister’s claw came perilously close to her eye and eye socket, but they didn’t penetrate.  Our Ashley pushed it the rest of the way in with a stiff finger.

“One eyeball on the inside,” Tristan said.

“Until battery runs out,” Chris said.

“Nuh uh,” Kenzie said.

“Batteries run out.  There’s no way you hooked that up to some greater power source and still sent it that far away from the source.”

“I included a battery recharger,” Kenzie said.

“What you said about sleeping with your head on a book,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Did you worry, when I had my claws so close?  Did you fear me?”  It was the other Ashley, talking to our Ashley.

“I trust you as far as I trust myself.”

“So corny,” Chris said.  “I can imagine them just doing that nonstop for the next two years, and acting like it’s still cute or funny.”

“For the record,” Tristan said.  “You’re not in the good books either.  This whole thing with being underhanded and potentially screwing up everything is so not good.”

Kenzie protested, “In really tough fights, Victoria can go all out and hit full strength.  In really tough information warfare, why can’t I do the same?  This stuff is maximum importance, and now we can do more with less!”

“We might,” I said.  “But we talk this sort of thing out first.  This is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do.”

Kenzie nodded, smiling.

“We should talk restrictions,” Sveta said.  “Make sure we don’t make anyone suspicious.  What if we waited a while before visiting again?”

“What?” Kenzie asked.  “You’re joking.”

Sveta said, “We just dropped some tech off at their place and compromised their systems-”

“It’s not going to get caught.  I guarantee you.”

“Just to be safe,” Sveta said.

“You’re punishing me.”

“I’m being safe,” Sveta said.  “If it’s unreasonably safe, maybe it’s because I don’t like my team doing things behind my back, and I’m uneasy.”

“I’m- really sorry,” Kenzie’s voice had unexpected emotion in it.  Her expression was a contrite half-smile.

“Good,” Sveta said.  “Apology accepted.”

“I really thought this would be best.  We can get info to and from there without it being stuck behind paperwork, or super difficult to get there and back.  We’re so behind on everything, and-”

“And we communicate,” I said.  “Please.”

Kenzie smiled and nodded.

Damn it.  I’d have to figure this out, in a time and place where I wasn’t putting her on the spot.  Smooth things over, make sure she wasn’t too upset.

“Speaking of communications,” Chris said.  He was on a computer.  “We have a peek at their systems.”

“Stay away from classified files,” Tristan said.  “We’ve torn past enough boundaries today already.

“Nothing classified,” Chris said.  “Employees make notes of frequent callers and people who request visits.  We’ve got some threads to follow.”

“Cheit?” Sveta asked.

Chris tapped the screen, before stepping back.

Rather than us go to the computer to look, Kenzie changed the display, broadcasting the image of yellow text on a black background onto the wall.

The self-proclaimed Blue Empress was wanting to see people within the prison.  She had been refused a few times.  For good reason.

She went by other names.  The Woman in Blue.  Goddess.  She’d taken over a world single-handedly.  After Gold Morning, she’d been left in our world, where she’d lurked on the fringes.  Something or someone in the prison had piqued her interest, and now she was exerting pressure, trying to get inside.

What to even say?  On the one hand, to dismiss this would be madness.  On the other hand, to mark it as important when doing so would only encourage Kenzie…

Pieces were almost falling into place.

“Chris, can you find information on Crystalclear?  Requests, communications?”

“Yeah,” Chris said.  “I can try.”

I folded my arms, looking at the image on the screen, the moving text, the slow-moving query.

My aura was like a push, fear or awe.  Lately it seemed to be only fear, with a few rare, weird exceptions.  Monokeros could pick one person and sway them wholly and completely.  The Woman in Blue was the best of both, or even stronger.

She’d been making subtle moves, biding her time, and nobody knew exactly why or what that patience served.  Now we had a glimmer of what she was doing.

She was after someone, something, or what the prison offered to someone who had absolute control over others- an army.

“Crystalclear is in communication with others,” Chris said.  “It’s encrypted.”

“We can get in,” Looksee said.  She looked at us.  “If you’re okay with that.”

One of the biggest players around was circling around one of the biggest, meanest collections of parahumans around.  Cheit knew and planned on turning it into a trap for her, explaining their interest in the place as a form of bait, or they’d happened to be after the same prize.

This was going to turn into a battlefield.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter