As I agreed to join the Undersiders, there was some whooping and cheering. I felt a touch guilty, for acting under false pretenses. I also felt pleased with myself, in an irrational way.
“Where do we go from here?” Lisa asked Brian.
“Not sure,” Brian said, “It’s not like we’ve done this before. I suppose we should let Rachel know, but she said she might work today.”
“If the new girl is okay with it, let’s stop by our place,” Lisa suggested, “See if Rache is there, celebrate the new recruit and get her filled in.”
“Sure,” I said.
“It’s just a few blocks away,” Brian said, “But we would stand out if you came with in costume.”
I stared at him for a moment, not wanting to comprehend his statement. If I took too long to respond, I realized, I would ruin this plan before it went anywhere. Whatever the case, I could have kicked myself. Of course this was the natural progression of events. Joining their team would mean I would be expected to share my identity, since they already had. Until I did, they wouldn’t be able to trust me with their secrets.
I could have blamed the lapse in judgement and foresight on my lack of sleep or the distraction of the events earlier in the day, but that didn’t change matters. I had maneuvered myself into a corner.
“Alright,” I said, sounding calmer than I felt. I hoped. “This costume is kinda uncomfortable under clothes. Can I get some privacy?”
“You want an alley, or…” Lisa asked, trailing off.
“I’ll change here, just take a minute,” I said, impulsively, as I glanced around. The buildings on the street were mostly one and two stories tall, with the only buildings taller than the one we were on being the one half a block away, and the one right next to us. There weren’t any windows on the building next to us with a great angle for seeing me change, and I doubted anyone on the distant building could see me as more than a figure two inches tall. If someone could see me change out of costume and make out enough details to identify me, I’d be surprised.
As the three of them headed to the fire escape, I pulled out the clothes I’d stuffed into the backpack. Armor panels aside, my costume was essentially one piece, with the exceptions being the belt and the mask. I kept the mask on as I undid the belt and peeled off the main costume. I wasn’t indecent – I was wearing a black tank top and black biking shorts underneath, in part for extra warmth. Silk wasn’t the best insulator on its own. I stepped into my jeans and pulled on the sweatshirt, then rubbed my arms and shoulders to brush off the mild chill. I put my costume and the plastic lunchbox in my backpack.
I felt a stab of regret at not having chosen better clothes to wear than a loose fitting sweatshirt and jeans that were too big for me. That regret quickly turned to a pang of anxiety. What would they think when they saw the real me? Brian and Alec were good looking guys, in very different ways. Lisa was, on the sliding scale between plain and pretty, more pretty than not. My own scale of attractiveness, by contrast, put me somewhere on a scale that ranged from ‘nerd’ to ‘plain’. My opinion of where I fit on that scale changed depending on the mood I was in when I was looking in the mirror. They were cool, confident, assured people. I was… me.
I stopped myself before I could get worked up. I wasn’t regular old Taylor, here. In the here and now, I was the girl who had put Lung in the hospital, accidental as it was. I was the girl who was going undercover to try and get the details on a particularly persistent gang of supervillains. I was, until I came up with a better name to go by, Bug, the girl the Undersiders wanted on their team.
If I said I made my way down the fire escape filled to the brim with confidence, I’d be lying. That said, I had managed to hype myself up enough to get myself down the ladder, mask still on, costume in my bag. I stood before them, glanced around to make sure nobody else was around, and then pulled off my mask. I had a few terrifying heartbeats where I was half-blind, their facial features just smudges, before I put on the glasses I’d had in my bag.
“Hi,” I said, lamely, using my fingers to comb my hair back into order, “I guess it wouldn’t work if you kept calling me Bug or new girl. I’m Taylor.”
Using my real name was a big gamble on my part. I was afraid it would be another thing I would be kicking myself for five minutes from now, much like the realization that I’d have to go uncostumed. I rationalized it by telling myself that I was already in this wholesale. Being truthful about that one thing might well save my hide if any of them decided to do some digging on me, or if I ran into someone I knew while in their company. I figured, hoped, that by the time this whole thing was over, I could maybe pull some strings with someone like Armsmaster and avoid having them leak my real name. Not impossible to imagine, given the level of security around some of the prisons they had for criminal parahumans. In any event, I would cross that bridge when I got to it.
Alec offered the slightest roll of his eyes as I introduced myself, while Brian just grinned. Lisa, though, put one of her arms around my shoulders and gave me a one-armed squeeze of a hug. She was a little older than I was, so she was just tall enough to be at the perfect height to do it. What caught me off guard was how nice the gesture felt. Like I had been needing a hug from someone who wasn’t my dad for a long time.
We walked deeper into the Docks as a group. While I had lived on the periphery of the area my entire life, and while most people would say the neighborhood I lived in was part of the ‘Docks’, I had never really been in the areas that gave this part of the city such a bad reputation. At least, I hadn’t if I discounted last night, and it had been dark then.
It wasn’t an area that had been kept up, and kind of gave off an impression of a ghost town, or what a city might look like if war or disaster forced people to abandon it for a few years. Grass and weeds grew between slats in the sidewalk, the road had potholes you could hide a cat in, and the buildings were all faded, consisting of peeling paint, cracked mortar and rusty metal. The desaturated colors of the buildings were contrasted by splashes of vividly colored graffiti. As we passed what had once been a main road for the trucks traveling between the warehouses and the docks, I saw a row of power lines without wires stretching between them. At one point weeds had crawled most of the way up the poles, only to wither and die at some point. Now each of the poles had a mess of dead brown plants hanging off of them.
There were people, too, though not too many were out and about. There were those you expected, like a homeless bag lady with a grocery cart and a shirtless old man with a beard nearly to his navel, collecting bottles and cans from a dumpster. There were others that surprised me. I saw a woman that looked surprisingly normal, in clothes that weren’t shabby enough to draw attention, herding four near-identical infant children into a factory building with a faded sign. I wondered if they were living there or if the mom was working there and just couldn’t do anything with her kids but bring them with her. We passed a twenty-something artist and his girlfriend, sitting on the sidewalk with paintings propped up around them. The girl waved at Lisa as we walked by, and Lisa waved back.
Our destination was a red brick factory with a massive sliding metal door locked shut by a coil of chain. Both the chain and door had rusted so much that I expected that neither offered any use. The size of the door and the broadness of the driveway made me think that large trucks or small boats would have been backed up through the entryway back in the factory’s heyday. The building itself was large, stretching nearly half the block, two or three stories tall. The background of the sign at the top of the building had faded from red to a pale orange-pink, but I could make out the bold white letters that read ‘Redmond Welding’.
Brian let us in through a small door on the side of the building, rather than the big rusted one. The interior was dark, lit only by rows of dusty windows near the ceiling. I could make out what had been massive machines and treadmills prior to being stripped to their bare bones. Sheets covered most of the empty and rusted husks. Seeing the cobwebs, I reached out with my power and felt bugs throughout. Nobody had been active in here for a long time.
“Come on,” Brian urged me. I looked back and saw that he was halfway up a spiral staircase in the corner. I headed up after him.
After seeing the desolation of the first floor, seeing the second floor was a shock. It was a loft, and the contrast was startling. The exterior walls were red brick, and there was no ceiling beyond a roof and a skeleton of metal girders overhead to support it. In terms of general area, the loft seemed to have three sections, though it was hard to define because it was such an open layout.
The staircase opened up into what I would have termed the living room, though the one room alone had nearly as much floor space as the ground floor of my house did. The space was divided by two couches, which were set at right angles from one another, both facing a coffee table and one of the largest television sets I had ever seen. Below the television set were a half dozen video game consoles, a DVD player and one or two machines I didn’t recognize. I supposed they might have a TiVo, though I’d never seen one. Speakers larger than the TVs my dad and I had at home sat on either side of the whole setup. Behind the couches were tables, some open space with rugs and shelves set against the walls. The shelves were only half filled with books and magazines, while the rest of the shelf space was filled with odds and ends ranging from a discarded shoe to candles.
The second section was a collection of rooms. It was hard to label them as such, though, because they were more like cubicles, three against each wall with a hallway between them. They were a fair size, and there were six doors, but the walls of each room were only eight or so feet tall, not reaching all the way up to the roof. Three of the doors had artwork spray painted on them. The first door had a crown done in a dramatic graffiti style. The second door had the white silhouette of a man and a woman against a blue background, mimicking the ‘mens’ and ‘womens’ washroom signs that were so common. The third had a girl’s face with puckered lips. I wondered what the story was, there.
“Nice art,” I said, pointing at the door with the crown on it, feeling kind of dumb for making it the first thing I’d said as I entered the room.
“Thanks,” Alec replied. I guess that meant it was his work.
I took another second to look around. The far end of the loft, the last of the three sections, had a large table and some cabinets. Though I couldn’t take a better look without crossing the whole loft, I gathered that their kitchen was in the far end of the loft.
Throughout, there was mess. I felt almost rude for paying attention to it, but there were pizza boxes piled on one of the tables, two dirty plates on the coffee table in front of the couch, and some clothes draped over the back of one of the couches. I saw pop cans – or maybe beer cans – stacked in a pyramid on the table in the far room. It wasn’t so messy that I thought it was offensive, though. It was mess that made a statement… like, ‘This is our space.’ No adult supervision here.
“I’m jealous,” I admitted, meaning it.
“Dork,” Alec said, “What are you jealous for?”
“I meant it’s cool,” I protested, a touch defensively.
Lisa spoke before Alec could reply, “I think what Alec means is that this is your place now too. This is the team’s space, and you’re a member of the team, now.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling dumb. Lisa and Alec headed to the living room, while Brian walked off to the far end of the loft. When Lisa gestured for me to follow her, I did. Alec lay down, taking up an entire couch, so I sat on the opposite end of the couch from Lisa.
“The rooms,” Lisa said, “Far side, in order of closest to farthest, are Alec, bathroom, mine.” That meant Alec’s room was the one with the crown, and Lisa’s door had the face with the puckered lips. She went on, “On the side closer to us, Rachel’s room, Rachel’s dogs’ room, and the storage closet.”
Lisa paused, then glanced at Alec and asked, “You think she-”
“Duh,” Alec cut her off.
“What?” I asked, feeling lost.
“We’ll clean out the storage closet,” Lisa decided, “So you have a room.”
I was taken aback. “You don’t have to do that for me,” I told her, “I’ve got a place.”
Lisa made a face, almost pained. She asked me, “Can we just do it anyways, and not make a fuss? It’d be a lot better if you had your own space here.”
I must have looked confused, because Alec explained, “Brian has an apartment, and was pretty firm about not needing or wanting a room here… but he and Lisa have been arguing regularly because of it. He has nowhere to sleep but the couch if he gets hurt and can’t go to his place, and there’s no place to put his stuff, so it gets left all over. Take the room. You’ll be doing us a favor.”
“Okay,” I said. I added, “Thank you,” as much for the explanation as for the room itself.
“Last time he went up against Shadow Stalker, he came back here and bled all over a white couch,” Lisa groused, “nine hundred dollar couch and we had to replace it.”
“Fucking Shadow Stalker,” Alec commiserated.
Brian came back from the other end of the loft, raising his voice to be heard as he approached, “Rache’s not here, and neither are her dogs. She must be walking them or working. Dammit. I get stressed when she’s out.” He approached the couches and saw Alec sprawled on the one.
“Move your legs,” Brian told him.
“I’m tired. Sit on the other couch,” Alec mumbled, one arm over his face.
Brian glanced at Lisa and I, and Lisa scooted over to make room. Brian glared down at Alec and then sat between us girls. I shifted my weight and tucked one leg under me to give him room.
“So,” Brian explained, “Here’s the deal. Two grand a month, just to be a member of the team. That means you help decide what jobs we do, you go on the jobs, you stay active, you’re available if we need to call.”
“I don’t have a phone,” I admitted.
“We’ll get you one,” he said, like it wasn’t even a concern. It probably wasn’t. “We generally haul in anywhere from ten grand to thirty-five grand for a job. That gets divided four ways… five ways now that you’re on the team.”
I nodded, then exhaled slowly, “It’s not small change.”
Brian nodded, a small smile playing on his lips, “Nope. Now, how on the ball are you, as far as knowing what we’re up against?”
I blinked a few times, then hedged, “For other local capes? I’ve done research online, read the cape magazines religiously for a few years, more since getting my powers… but I dunno. If the past twenty four hours have taught me anything, it’s that there’s a lot I don’t know, and will only find out the hard way.”
Brian smiled. I mean, really smiled. It made me think of a boy rather than a nearly-grown man. He replied, “Most don’t get that, you know? I’ll try to share what I know, so you aren’t caught off guard, but don’t be afraid to ask if there’s anything you’re not sure about, alright?”
I nodded, and his smile widened. He said, through a good natured chuckle, “Can’t tell you how much of a relief it is that you take this stuff seriously, since some people -” he stopped to lean over and kick the side of the couch Alec was lying on, “-need me to twist their arms to get them listening, and some people,” he jerked his thumb over his right shoulder, “think they know everything.”
“I do know everything,” Lisa said, “It’s my power.”
“What?” I said, interrupting Brian. My heartbeat quickened, though I hadn’t exactly been relaxed to begin with, “You’re omniscient?”
Lisa laughed, “No, no. I do know things though. My power tells me stuff.”
Swallowing hard, hoping I wasn’t drawing attention by doing so, I asked, “Like?” Like why I was joining their team?
Lisa sat forward and put her elbows on her knees, “Like how I knew you were at the library when I sent me the messages. If I felt like it, and if I had the know how, I’m sure I could have figured it out by breaking into the website database and digging through the logs to find the address you connected from, but my power just let me skip that step like that.” She snapped her fingers.
“And why exactly did you mention you knew where she was?” Brian queried, his voice a touch too calm.
“I wanted to see how she’d react. Messing with her a little,” Lisa grinned.
“God dammit-” Brian started, but Lisa waved him off.
“I’m filling the newbie in,” she waved him off, “Yell at me later.”
Not giving him a chance to reply, she turned to me and explained, “My power fills in the gaps in my knowledge. I generally need some info to start from, but I can use details my power feeds me to figure out more stuff, and it all sort of compounds itself, giving me a steady flow of info.”
I swallowed, “And you knew that a cape was on the way last night?”
“Yeah,” she said, “Call it a well educated guess.”
“And you knew the stuff about what happened in the PHQ the same way?”
Lisa’s smile widened, “I’ll admit I cheated there. Figuring out passwords is pretty easy with my power. I dig through the PHQ’s digital paperwork and enjoy a little reality TV by way of their surveillance cameras when I’m bored. It’s useful because I’m not only getting the dirt from what I see, hear and read, but my power fills in the details on stuff like changes in their routine and the team politics.”
I stared at her, a good part of me horrified that I’d gotten into an undercover situation opposite a girl with superpowered intuition.
Taking my silence for awe, she grinned her vulpine smile, “It’s not that amazing. I’m really best with concrete stuff. Where things are, timing, encryption, yadda yadda. I can read something out of changes in body language or routine, but it’s less reliable and kind of a headache. Enough information overload without, you know?”
I did know, her explanation echoed my own thoughts regarding my ability to see and hear things through my bugs. Still, her words didn’t make me feel that much better.
“And,” Brian said, still glowering at Lisa, “Even if she knows a lot, that doesn’t mean Lisa can’t be a dumbass sometimes.”
Lisa punched him in the arm.
“So what are your powers then?” I asked Brian and Alec, hoping for a change in topic.
They didn’t get a chance to tell me. I heard barking from downstairs. A matter of heartbeats later I was standing, three paces from the couch. Three snarling dogs had me backed against the wall, drool flying from their mouths as their teeth gnashed and snapped for my hands and face.