Sentinel 9.6

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Shadow Stalker paused in her patrol when she arrived at the roof of the Hillside Mall, downtown.  She’d hoped to run into some looters, had had some luck earlier in the week at this spot, but it seemed that police forces were stationed at the entrances, now.  Annoyed, she walked over to the corner of the roof, so the toes of her boots were just at the brink.

She got her smartphone and dialed Emma.  The phone automatically made the wireless connection to her earbud.

“Hey, superhero,” Emma answered.

“How’s Portland?”

“Good food, good shopping, boring as hell.  I wish I could come back, hang out.”

“I wish you to come back, too,” Shadow Stalker admitted, “These morons are fucking pissing me off, and I’m not getting enough breaks from it.  I don’t have the patience for this.”

“Which morons?  The Wards?”

“The Wards,” Shadow Stalker confirmed.  She sat down on the ledge.  “They’re children.”

“Yeah,” Emma replied.  She didn’t prod for more information or clarification.  Shadow Stalker had gone over this before enough times, in one variation or another.

That didn’t stop her from returning to the subject, “Sure, some of them are older.  Some have more time in the field than me.  Maybe.  But they’re still children, living in their comfortable, cozy little worlds.  I dunno if you’ve seen what the city’s like now-”

“-I saw some on the news.” Emma interjected.

“Right.  Damaged, destroyed, fucked up.  This is a place those kids visit, and they’re still convinced they can fix it.  I’ve lived with this all my life.  Waded through this shit from the beginning.  I know they’re deluding themselves.  So yeah, they’re immature, new to this, and I don’t know how long I can fucking put up with them.”

“Two and a half more years, right?”  Emma asked, “Then you’re off probation, free to do your thing.”

“God, don’t remind me.  Makes me realize I’m not even halfway through it.  I can’t believe it’s already been this long, constantly hearing them bitch about dating, or clothes, or allowances, and every time I hear it it’s like, I want to scream in their face, fuck you, you little shit, shut the fuck up.  I’ve killed people, and then I washed the blood off my hands and went to school and acted normal the next day!”

Silence hung on the line for a few long moments.

“I remember,” Emma spoke, a touch subdued.

Shadow Stalker chewed on her lower lip, watched a butch policewoman pull into the parking lot, then hand out coffees to the others on duty.

“If it weren’t for all the crying and the complaining, I would almost be glad Leviathan had attacked the city.  Tear away that fucking ridiculous veneer that covers everything.  Get rid of those fucking fake smiles and social niceties and daily routines that everyone hides behind.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”  Shadow Stalker didn’t elaborate too much further on the subject.  Leviathan had revealed the desperate, needy animal at the core of everyone in this city.  He’d made things honest.

Most were victims, sheep huddling together for security in numbers, or rats hiding in the shadows, avoiding attention.  Others were predators, going on the offensive, taking what they needed through violence or manipulation.

She didn’t care what category people fell into, so long as they didn’t get in her way, like Grue had a habit of doing.  Worse yet were those who seemed intent on irritating her by being lame and depressing, like Taylor or like Vista had been this past week.

They weren’t all bad.  The victim personality did have a habit of pissing her off, but she could let them be so long as the person or people in question stayed out of sight and out of mind, accepting their place without fight or fanfare.  There were some ‘predators’, she could admit, that were even useful.  Emma came to mind, the girl went a long way towards making life out of costume tolerable, and there was Director Piggot, who had kept her out of jail thus far, because she fit into the woman’s overarching agenda of PR and the illusion of a working system.

There was a need for that kind of person in society, someone willing to step on others to get to the top, do what was necessary, so they could keep the wheels spinning.  Not all of them were so useful or tolerable, of course, but there were enough out there that she couldn’t say everyone with that kind of aggressive, manipulative psychology was a blight on society.  She could respect the Piggots and Emmas of the world, if only because they served as facilitators that allowed her to do what she did best, in costume and out, respectively.

She was a ‘predator’, whether she was Shadow Stalker or Sophia.  Few would deny that, even among her own teammates.

A convoy of trucks on the road below caught her attention.  Each vehicle was painted dark, and two had the look of army vehicles, with gray-black mottled cloth or canvas covering the cargo or personnel at the rear.  They had their headlights off to avoid drawing attention.  There were two good possibilities for who they might be.  The first was that it was a shipment of supplies.  Food, water, first aid and tools, which would mean there was a small contingent of capes inside one of the trucks or in the immediate area.  The second option was that it was Coil and his troops.

She realized she was still holding the phone, and the noise of a television or music told her Emma was still on the other line.  “Something’s going on.  Going to see if it leads to anything interesting.”

“Call back when you’re done, give me the recap.”

“Right.”  She hung up.

Leaping into the air, she entered her shadow state, every part of her body shifting gears in the span of a half-second.  Her lungs automatically stopped taking in air and her heart stopped beating.  She was suddenly hyperaware of changes in the atmosphere, movements of air as it passed through her body.  She had enough solidity for her body to seize the air molecules as they passed through her, and in this manner, each of her cells nourished itself.

It was strange, to feel so still.  She lacked even the most basic processes and routines that normally kept the body going, things people rarely gave a second thought to.  There was no near-silent roar of blood in her ears, no need to blink, no production of saliva in her mouth or movement of food and water in her gut.  She just existed.

But the movement of air through her body made her feel just as alive, more alive, in a very different way.  The material and gravel of the rooftop were still warm from the day’s sunlight, even submerged beneath a thin layer of water from the rain.  This rising, heated air from this surface offered her an almost imperceptible added buoyance.  The rest of her ascent was carried out by the momentum from her leap and the fact that she was nearly weightless.  Jumping fifteen feet in the air to a rooftop one story above her was almost effortless.

She turned solid long enough to land.  Changing back brought a sudden, thunderous restarting of her heart, a shudder running through her entire body as her bloodstream jerked back into motion.  It only lasted the briefest of moments as she bent her knees and threw herself forward.  The moment her feet left the ground, she entered the shadow state once again, sailing across the rooftop.  She used one wispy foot to push herself out further as she reached the roof’s edge, so she could glide just above one rooftop without even touching ground.

In this fashion, she kept pace with the trucks, which weren’t moving slowly but weren’t going full-bore either, likely because of the condition of the roads.

It was five minutes before trouble arrived.

It was Menja that made the first move, stampeding out of a nearby alleyway, standing at a height of twenty feet tall.  She drove her spear into the engine block of the lead truck, stepped in front of the vehicle and wrenched her weapon to tip the truck over and arrest its forward momentum.

The truck immediately behind tried to stop, but the flooded pavement made it impossible to get enough traction.  It skidded and collided into the back of the foremost truck.

Miss Militia was climbing up out of the lead truck’s passenger door in an instant, hefting a grenade launcher to blast Menja three times in quick succession.  The giantess stumbled back, raised her shield – her sister’s shield – to block a fourth shot.  Hookwolf, Stormtiger, and Cricket all joined the fray, followed by their foot soldiers.  On the PRT’s side, the trucks emptied of PRT troops and one more cape, Assault.  They mobilized to defend, and the noise of gunfire rang through the night air.

Shadow Stalker crouched at the corner of the roof, loaded her crossbow and fired a shot at Cricket.  It passed a half-foot behind the woman.  Her second shot was on target, and Cricket dropped a few seconds later, tranquilized.  Good – The woman’s radar might find Shadow Stalker if she wasn’t in her shadow state, and Shadow Stalker could be far more effective if the enemy didn’t see where she was attacking from.

Who else?  Menja was classified as a breaker, the spatial-warping effect that surrounded her made incoming attacks smaller even as she simultaneously made herself bigger.  The darts wouldn’t even be noticeable to her.  Stormtiger could deflect projectiles by sensing and adjusting air currents.  With the right timing, so her shots came out of the shadow state as they arrived to make contact with him?  Maybe.  But he was engaged in a fist fight with Assault, and she’d be risking tagging the hero.  Hookwolf?  No point.  He was currently in the shape of a gigantic wolf made of whirring metal blades.  Even if the dart did penetrate something approximating flesh, which it wouldn’t, his entire biology was so different that she doubted he would be affected.

Instead, she settled for targeting the clusters of Hookwolf’s troops.  ‘Fenrir’s Chosen’.  Each of the thugs had white face-paint extending from forehead to cheekbone to chin, in a crude approximation of a wolf’s face.  She began dropping them at a steady rate, aiming for the biggest, the most aggressive and the ones who looked like they were in charge of lesser troops, the captains.  As the troops began falling, Hookwolf’s forces became unsettled, hesitating to advance.  Hookwolf reared up on two legs, pointing and howling orders, likely demanding they attack.  His words were incomprehensible from the rooftop where Shadow Stalker crouched, but the tone left no mistake that he was threatening them to drive them back into the fight.

The distraction afforded Miss Militia time to prepare and fire a mortar straight into Hookwolf’s chest.  As he collapsed backward, his chest cavity gaping open, her gun shimmered, split and transformed into a pair of assault rifles.  She unloaded clip after clip into the enemy ranks; rubber bullets, most likely.  The innate issues of the nonlethal ammunition were almost negligible in Miss Militia’s case.  She could reform the gun in a second if a gun jammed.

Shadow Stalker watched a crowd of Hookwolf’s Chosen move to flank, moving along the sidewalk, where the crashed truck blocked the view of the PRT forces.  Shadow Stalker raised her crossbow, hesitated.  She could jump down, take them down in close quarters combat.  It had been her entire reason for going out, after having to deal with the irritation of Vista.  She craved that catharsis.

She holstered her crossbow, prepared to dive into their midst, and then paused as she saw the Chosen stagger back, lashing out with their hands.  One shouted something, which was odd given how they had been trying to be stealthy only a moment ago.

What?

Then another figure stepped out of the alleyway closest to them.  A girl, skinny, but not in the attractive way you saw in magazines.  Spindly.  Was that the right word?  The girl was hard to make out in the gloom – there were no lights on the street, and the only light was what filtered from the moon and through the rain clouds.  The girl glanced left, around the back of the truck, then glanced right, where she might have seen Shadow Stalker if she looked up just a little.  The lenses of her mask caught the moonlight, flashing a pale yellow.

Skitter.

A feral smile spread across Shadow Stalker’s face, beneath her mask.

Shadow Stalker resisted the urge to jump down, watched as the shadow of the bug girl’s swarm moved over the Chosen, almost obscuring them from view.  The bug girl drew her combat stick, whipped it out to full length, and dispatched the Chosen one by one.  Shadow Stalker couldn’t see the hits, between the darkness and the obscuring mass of the swarm, but she saw the splashes and movements of the Chosen as they fell to the ground, clutching their faces, knees, and hands.

Some of the bugs flowed out to pass over the PRT forces and the Chosen.  The thugs started recoiling and slapping at themselves, but Shadow Stalker couldn’t see much reaction from the PRT forces.  They were made of sterner stuff, in a way, and their uniforms covered them thoroughly enough that the bugs wouldn’t do nearly as much damage, if they were even attacking.

Skitter emerged from the center mass of the swarm, carrying a bag of supplies from the truck.  It was green canvas, large, not dissimilar to a gym bag.  Pulling the strap over one shoulder, she briskly retreated back into the alley, the bugs trailing after her like the tail of a slow moving comet, or the steady trail of smoke from a candle.

“Hungry, are you?” Shadow Stalker murmured to herself.  She shifted into her shadow state, moved along the rooftop to follow the girl.  Shadow Stalker was almost entirely silent in this state, virtually impossible to see, especially in this light, unless someone was actively looking for her.  She was a gray shadow against a background of black and shades of gray.

You saw my face.  Shadow Stalker thought, Records say you’ve got no team, now.  Operating alone between the old Boardwalk and the east end of Downtown.

She leaped to the next rooftop, and the movement carried her a little ahead of her target, helped by the fact that the bug girl was moving a little slower with her burden.  Shadow Stalker paused and reached up beneath her cloak and between her shoulder blades.  She withdrew a cartridge for her crossbow, each bolt loaded in at a slight angle, so the aluminum ‘feathers’ at the tail of each bolt stuck out.  She popped out one bolt to examine it, then turned it around so the barbed, razor sharp arrowhead caught the moonlight.  As Skitter passed beneath her, she turned the bolt’s point so her perspective made it appear to be at the girl’s throat.

Operating solo means there’s nobody to miss you.

She entered her shadow state and moved further along the rooftop, only to feel a group of flying insects pass through her body.  A fraction of a second later, Skitter was running, abandoning the bag, disappearing around a corner, not even turning to look Shadow Stalker’s way.

“You want to run?  I don’t mind a bit of a chase,” Shadow Stalker smiled behind her mask, loading the cartridge into her right-hand crossbow.  She leaped after the girl, gliding down to street level, rebounding off a wall to turn the corner and give pursuit.

Skitter had turned around, was waiting as she rounded the corner.  The bug girl sent a mass of insects out to attack.

The bugs passed through Shadow Stalker’s body, slowing her momentum.  She suspected that if there were enough of them, they could even carry her aloft, push her back.  But there weren’t – the swarm wasn’t quite big enough.  As the stream of insects passed through her, reoriented in preparation to flow through her again, she pounced.

The residual bugs threw her off, slowing down her power.  Her body had to push them out of the space it wanted to occupy, delayed the change back to her normal self by a half-second.  Her hand passed through Skitter’s throat, but she caught her balance, drew her rearmost foot up and back in a half-spin.  Her heel collided with Skitter’s mask.

Skitter went down, and Shadow Stalker turned her crossbow on her fallen opponent.  She was about to fire when the combat stick lashed out.  She lifted the crossbow up just in time –  had she been a second slower, the stick might have broken her weapon.  Acutely aware of the bugs clustering on her, she dropped into her shadow state before they could crawl beneath her mask.

The stick passed through her head, once.  She resisted the urge to snap back to her normal form and retaliate.  The girl was powerless here.  Shadow Stalker could afford to hound her, drive her to the brink of desperation, wear her down.

The bug girl switched to a one-handed grip on her baton, flying insects clustering around her to mask her movements as she backed away a step.  She used her free hand to push the wet hair out of her face.  Then she adjusted her costume, reaching to tug her shoulderpad forward a bit, then reached behind her back to do much the same with the armor there.

“You really want to fight me?” Shadow Stalker asked her opponent, a note of incredulity in her voice.  She raised her right crossbow.  The one with the lethal ammunition.

Skitter didn’t reply.

Whatever else Shadow Stalker might think of the bug girl, how the girl was creepy, a freak, she had to admit Skitter had demonstrated enough viciousness to date that she could almost respect the girl as a fellow predator.  An idiot, for wanting to fight her, but kindred, in a fashion.  “Alright, fine.”

Skitter gripped her weapon two-handed again.  The grip was strange.  Something in her left hand?

Shadow Stalker realized what it was.  She simultaneously moved back, gripped her cloak with her left hand and shifted to her solid state to raise the fabric as a barrier.  The pepper spray spattered her cloak.

When she was sure the spray had dissipated, she threw her cloak back over one shoulder and shifted to her shadow state to escape the bugs that were crawling on her, taking advantage of her solidity.   She lunged after Skitter, who was running, already turning a corner at the other side of the alley.

Good runner, but I’m faster.

Shadow Stalker didn’t need to slosh through the water, but she knew she would be faster than the other girl even if she did.  It wasn’t just her shadow state eliminating wind resistance, or the lightness of her body.  She was a trained runner.

She bounded from one wall of the alley to the one opposite, staying above the water, pursuing her target.

Skitter was going up the steps of a fire escape.  Shadow Stalker aimed and fired a bolt – the girl ducked, and the shot clipped a railing instead.

Good reflexes.  Shadow Stalker brushed away at the bugs massing around her.  Or do your bugs help you watch what I’m doing?  Disturbing little freak.

Apparently deciding the fire escape wasn’t a great option, Skitter climbed over the railing and leaped a half-story down to the pavement, putting a chain link fence and some accumulated trash bags between herself and Shadow Stalker.

MoronI can walk through that fence.  She loaded her crossbow, aimed, and fired through the fence at the girl.

A flash and spray of sparks erupted as the shot made contact with the fence.  Skitter stumbled as the bolt hit her, but Shadow Stalker couldn’t see if it had done any damage.

No, what concerned her was the flash.  She ignored the fact that Skitter was disappearing, entered her solid state and touched the side of her mask.

Lenses snapped into place, showing a blurry image of the alley in shades of dark green and black.  The chain link fence, however, was lit up in a very light gray.  Similarly glowing, a wire was stapled to the brick of the building next to the fence, leading to a large, pale blob inside the building.  A generator.

The fence was electrified.

Shadow Stalker snarled at what had almost been a grave mistake, entered her shadow state and leaped up and over the fence, being careful not to touch it.

One of the reasons she couldn’t move through walls at will, beyond the huge break in her forward momentum and the excruciating pain that came with stalling in the midst of a wall, was wiring.  She remained just as vulnerable, maybe even more vulnerable, to electrocution.  The people in the PRT labs couldn’t tell her if she could be killed by electrocution – traditional organs were barely present in her shadow state – but it was one of those things that couldn’t be properly tested without risking killing the subject.

End result?  She had to be careful where she went, had received tinker-made lenses to help her spot such threats.

Skitter had known the fence was electrified, judging by the route she’d taken through the fire escape.  The area here didn’t have any power, so the question was whether it something this area’s inhabitants had set up to protect themselves… or was it a trap Skitter had put in place well in advance?  No.  More likely the girl had studied this area before carrying out any crimes.

Still, it troubled her that the girl had thought to use the fence like she had.  She really didn’t like the idea that the villain had not only seen her face, but that she might have figured out one of her weaknesses.  Two, if she counted the pepper spray.  Being permeable was a problem when she absorbed gases, vapors and aerosols directly into her body.  It wouldn’t affect her if she was in her shadow state, and it would eventually filter out, but if she were forced to change back, she’d suffer as badly as anyone, if not worse.

Shadow Stalker caught up to the girl yet again, saw Skitter running with her swarm clustered tightly around her.  Was the girl wanting to make herself a harder target?

Hardly mattered – Shadow Stalker loaded and fired another bolt.

At the same instant the bolt fired, the swarm parted in two.  Two swarm-wreathed figures covered in bugs, each turning at a right angle to round a corner.  The bolt sailed between them.  One was a decoy, just a swarm in a vaguely human shape.

She checked the sides of the alley and the recessed doors.  Could they both be decoys?  She couldn’t see any obvious hiding spots that Skitter could have used at a moment’s notice.

Shadow Stalker closed the distance, placing herself at the intersection between the two bug-shrouded figures.  Holding each crossbow out in an opposite direction, she fired at both targets at once, snapping her attention from one to the next in an attempt to see which reacted to the hit.

One slowed, began to topple.  She lunged after, in pursuit, loaded her crossbow and fired two more shots into the center mass of Skitter’s body while airborne, then kicked downward with both feet as she landed, to shove the girl into the ground.

Her body weight dissolved the blurry silhouette into a mess of bugs.  A trick.

Snarling, Shadow Stalker wheeled around, ran in the direction the other half of the swarm had gone  Had the girl’s armor taken the bolt?  Had the crossbow shot missed?

More bugs were flowing from the area to join the swarm, bolstering its number enough for it to split again.  She wasn’t close enough to be sure of a hit, and she didn’t want to waste her good arrows, so she delayed, leaped forward to close the gap.

The swarm split once more, making for four vaguely human figures in total, each cloaked in a cloud of flying insects.

Shadow Stalker snarled a curse word.

One figure turned on the spot, moved as if to slide past Shadow Stalker.  She lashed out, striking it in the throat, failed to hit anything solid.

She loaded her crossbows, fired at the figure on the far left and the far right of the trio.  No reaction.  She dove after the remaining one.

She made contact, drove the bug girl’s face down into the water.  She shifted into her shadow state, straddling Skitter.   The girl turned over of her own volition – easy enough, as Shadow Stalker was barely solid, but when Skitter tried to stand, Shadow Stalker resumed her normal form for a second – just long enough to force the girl back down.

Picking one of her non-tranquilizer bolts from the cartridge, she held the point of the ammunition to Skitter’s throat like a knife, “Game over, you little freak.”

Skitter cocked her head a little, as if analyzing Shadow Stalker from a different perspective.

“What are you looking at?” Shadow Stalker spat the word, “Nothing to say?  No last words?  No begging?  No fucking apologies?”

Skitter went limp, letting her head rest against the ground, the water lapping over most of her mask.  Dark curls fanned out in the water around her, swaying as the water rippled.

“Guess I don’t need to worry about the villain who saw my face, now.”  Shadow Stalker went solid and drew the razor-sharp tip of her bolt across Skitter’s throat.

The fabric didn’t cut.

Skitter struggled to get free, but Shadow Stalker’s body weight was too much for her to slide free.  She gripped the girl’s wrists with her hands, pinned them to the ground.

“Irritating,” she spat the word.  She could always go into her shadow state, stick the arrow inside the girl and then return to normal.  The problem with going that route was that it left a very characteristic imprint in the victim.  She would need a way of covering up the evidence.  Something she could hit Skitter with afterward that would make the wound too messy to analyze for evidence.

While she craned her head to one side to the next to search for something useful, her surroundings were plunged into darkness.

It took her only a moment to realize what that meant.  She climbed off Skitter, moved to run.  The darkness was oppressive, sluggish in moving through her, unlike ordinary air.  She was slower, wasn’t taking in enough oxygen.  Against her will, her power instinctively adjusted, shifted her into a middle ground between her regular self and her shadow state.  It left her slower, heavier.

She baited me.

A massive shape tore through her, dissipated her entire body.  She pulled back together, but it was hard, painful and uncomfortable on an unspecific, fundamental level.  It left her breathing hard, feeling like she’d just put her body through five hours of the hardest exercise of her life.  Enervating, was that the right word?  Bugs were gathering inside and around her body, making it a little harder and a little more time-consuming to pull together.

Then, before she had succeeded in pulling herself all the way together, it happened again, another large form striking from another direction, passing through her lower body.

She sagged.  Gasped out in pain as another shape passed through her head and shoulders.  The darkness absorbed her cry so it barely reached her own ears.

It was only seconds later that the darkness dissipated.  She was on her hands and knees, barely had the strength to move, let alone fight.  She tried to raise her right crossbow, but her hand seized up, no longer under her own control as it bent to a pain like a bad Charlie horse.  Her fingers curled back, and the crossbow tumbled from her fingers.  She still had one in her left hand, but she was using the heel of that hand to prop herself up.

Her opponents were revealed as the shadows passed, arranged in a rough ring around her.  Hellhound and her dogs took up half the clearing, in front of Shadow Stalker.  She held a metal ring in each hand, with two chains extending out from each ring.   The chains, in turn, were connected to harnesses around the heads and snouts of the ‘dogs’, each animal only a little smaller than a refrigerator.  They were monstrous, with scaly, horned exteriors and exposed muscle.  Not as big or ugly as they could get, Shadow Stalker knew.  The smallest one was barking incessantly.  Three of the four were pulling on the chains, hungry to get at Shadow Stalker, clearly intent on tearing her apart.  Hellhound’s sharp pulls on the chains contracted the bindings around their snouts, which made them stop before they could get too close.

Grue stood to her left, arms folded, almost indistinguishable from the darkness behind him.  After her first humiliating loss to him, she’d made it a mission to drive him out of this city.  He’d stubbornly refused.  A girl Shadow Stalker didn’t recognize stood just behind him, wearing a black scarf and a pale gray mask with pointed horns arching over the top of her head.  The eyes of the mask had lenses that were black from corner to corner, stylized to look fierce, more animal than human.

Rounding out the group were Tattletale, Regent and Skitter.  Tattletale smiled, her hands clasped behind her back, while Regent twirled his scepter in his fingers.  Skitter stood between the two of them.  The bug girl bent, then crouched until she was almost at eye level with Shadow Stalker.

A laugh escaped Shadow Stalker’s lips, building until she couldn’t balance her upper body on her weakened arm.  She bent so one shoulder hit the ground, rolled onto her back, arms at her sides.  She looked up at Skitter, “All that drama, all that fucking nonsense about allegiances, betraying your team, was it a trick, some joke?”

Skitter shook her head slowly.

Shadow Stalker tried to rise, but the growling of one of the dogs intensified.  It was the only one that wasn’t pulling on its chain – the largest and most monstrous of the four, with one empty eye socket.  Between the threat of the dog and the lack of strength in the arm that Regent wasn’t fucking up, Shadow Stalker gave up and let herself slump down.

“Well,” she spoke, her tone sarcastic, “How wonderfully fucking nice for you, that you guys patched things up.  You even have a new member, congratulations.  I guess everything’s back to normal for you freaks.”

“No…”  Skitter spoke, and the bugs around her chirped, buzzed and droned to match the pitch and tone of her words.  The villain hadn’t done that when the Undersiders attacked the fundraiser, she remembered.   Her voice was quiet, which only made it more eerie.  The girl held out her hand, and Regent passed his scepter to her.

“…Things are different now,” Skitter finished.

Skitter drove the scepter into Shadow Stalker’s body.  It was everything Shadow Stalker could do to stay solid as she felt the tines of the crowned stick biting through the fabric of her costume and into her stomach.  She resisted the instincts that two and a half years of exercising her powers had lent her, because she knew what came next.  It’ll be worse if I’m in my shadow state, maybe lethal.

Being tased didn’t hurt as much as she’d expected.  It was like being doused in ice water, her entire body seizing, straining, and refusing to cooperate, the pain almost secondary.  What hurt most was the way she involuntarily clenched of her jaw.  The strength with which her teeth pressed together made her worry she might crack a tooth.

It only lasted a moment, but her body wasn’t any more cooperative after the current subsided.  She lay there, huffing small breaths, every limb unresponsive.  A deep, furious rage grew inside her chest, but she was impotent to do anything to release it.

A pair of hands seized her, sat her up.  Her arm dangled limp to her side.

Grue spoke from behind her.  “Skitter, lift her legs.  Regent, support her midsection.  Imp?  Give me a hand with her upper body, take the other shoulder.  We lift on three, alright?”

“Right,” someone said.

“One, two, three!”

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Sentinel 9.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Don’t cross the yellow line,” Flechette spoke.

“Right,” Vista agreed, “I got the message the last time I came this way.”

Flechette leaned forward, found a string, beaded with water from the rain.  She plucked it twice.

Parian sloshed out from a nearby alley.  A nine-foot tall rabbit with an eyepatch and boxing gloves followed a few feet behind her, moving on two legs, swaggering forward like it had a chip on its shoulder.

“It’s cute!” Vista smiled.

“Hi Vista,” Parian greeted her.  “Hi Flechette.”

“Hey,” Flechette smiled, “We come bearing gifts.”

Vista stepped forward and held out a shopping bag, “A dozen gallons of water, some rice, some tins of beans, multivitamins and first aid supplies.  My power will wear off pretty soon, so get the bag somewhere safe before then.”

“It’s basic stuff,” Flechette said, “But it’ll hold you for a little while.”

“Thank you,” Parian spoke, reaching over the makeshift yellow line for the bag.  She held it behind her back with both hands.  Just over her right shoulder, cloth formed into a rough shape, a trio of needles with attached spools of thread weaving in and around it, a razor cutting at pieces of it.

“How are you managing?”  Flechette asked.

“Some kids came through around noon, roughed up the mother of one of my friends.”

“I told you to call me if there was trouble!”

“I handled it.  Kind of.  They ran when they saw my rabbit.  According to my friend’s mom, they were trying to get someone to tell them where they could get food, and she was afraid they’d take everything if she told them where we have our stuff.  I think they were more hungry than dangerous.  Not enough food going around.”  The cloth took on a rough shape with arms and legs.  “Erm, that makes it sound like I’m blaming you guys-”

“You’re right,” Flechette interrupted.  “We’re not doing a good job of getting supplies to everyone.  We can’t.  Any time we try to distribute it, a group like Hookwolf’s gang or the Merchants try to seize it.  Even if the heroes on duty fend them off, the citizens get scared away.”

“I suppose we’re lucky to have this haven, here.  So far.  I dunno how long before someone I can’t scare off comes through.”

“You have my number.”

Vista turned away as a third voice sounded in her ear.  She stepped away from the conversation, shook her head a little to shake off the water that the steady rain was depositing on her.

Vista squeezed the earbud, “Sorry?  I didn’t catch that?”

“Weld here.  Kid Win has something to report, asked everyone to come in.  Can you make it back here quickly?”

“Okay.”

She hurried back to Flechette’s side and waited a few seconds for a break in the conversation.  When none was forthcoming, she put a hand on Flechette’s arm.

“What’s up?”

“Weld wants us back asap.”

A look of disappointment crossed Flechette’s face.

“I’ll see you later?” Parian asked.

“I’ll stop by later, unless I’m done with patrols for the night,” Flechette shrugged.

“I’ll look forward to it,” Parian replied. She turned to Vista, “Here.”

Vista accepted her gift.  A stuffed rabbit, made in the last-minute or so.  It was finely detailed, wearing a fancy dress with lace trim.  The fur had a softness that indicated high quality material, despite being wet.  She would have been delighted with the gift, were she four years younger.

It was still a really nice gesture.

She suppressed her annoyance at the child’s gift and offered a smile instead, “Thank you, Parian.”

“Let’s go,” Flechette spoke, “Back to headquarters?”

“Back to headquarters.  Come on, we’ll take my shortcut.”

They walked two blocks east to reach Lord street.  Beneath the water’s surface, they could see a fissure that ran down the center of the road, zig-zagging from one lane to the other.

Vista stepped out into the middle of the road at the edge of the fissure, then concentrated.  She felt her power extend to every solid object in front of her, formed a map in her head.  There was nobody out there, which made it easier.  Slowly, carefully, she began adjusting.  She truncated the length of Lord street, then did it again, repeating the process to make the four lane road shorter and shorter.  The fissure down the center of the road squeezed against itself like a compressed spring.

“This is disorienting,” Flechette spoke, as she gazed at the scene.  “My power gives me a grasp of angles… and I’m worried I might have a seizure if I try to use it to get a sense of what’s happening here.”

“It’s not that complicated.  Everything’s like wet clay, and I’m smudging it around.”

Vista deemed her work done, started walking forward.  Flechette followed, eyeing the distorted sidewalk at the edges of the effect.

“You’re powerful, kiddo,” Flechette said.

“Kinda.”

“You could be one of the top dogs in the Protectorate, in five or six more years.”

Vista frowned, “They said the same thing about Dauntless.”

“One of the Protectorate members who got killed, if I remember right?”

Vista nodded.

Flechette frowned, “That’s… unexpectedly dark, coming from you.  Where did that come from?”

“What we do is dangerous.  Sometimes we die.  I don’t see why I should worry about what happens five years from now when I might not even be here.”

“Are you having second thoughts about being on the team?”

Vista gave Flechette a look, “No.  Not in the slightest.”

“But if you’re concerned about risking your life…”

“I didn’t say I was concerned,” Vista said, a note of exasperation in her voice, “Just that, hey, it might happen.  I’m being realistic.”

“I can’t tell if you’re being amazingly mature about the topic of death or if I should be really concerned about you.”

Amazingly mature?”

They had reached the PRT building.  A trip that had taken them thirty minutes on the way out had taken them four on the way back, with the aid of Vista’s power.  Flechette held the bulletproof glass door open, raised a hand in greeting to the PRT uniform who stood alert on the other side.  “You know what I mean.”

Vista had to bite her tongue.  Pointing out that people were being condescending had a way of making her look petulant, which only compounded the problem.  Yes.  Because any maturity on my part is something special.  Doesn’t matter that I have nine months of seniority over Kid Win, being thirteen means everyone expects me to be squealing over Justin Beiber or the Maggie Holt books, or dressing in pink or-

Her train of thought stopped dead when her eye fell on the portraits on the wall above the front desk.

Three feet high and two feet wide, the two pictures were black and white, bordered by foot-wide black frames.  The pictures themselves were head-and-shoulders shots of Aegis and Gallant, both in costume, masks on.  She knew from her own experience that the pictures would have been taken in their first week on the team.  Gallant looked so young.  He had still been so young when the tidal wave had smashed into him and caved in his chest.  Only seventeen.

She looked at her own picture.  In contrast to the boys’, it was vibrant, filled with color.  Her eyes, costume and the frame of the picture were a high-saturation blue-green, the background of the image a sunset orange to highlight her blonde hair.  Vista was young in that picture too.  Her photo had a missing fang tooth on the bottom row, which created a small, dark gap in her awkward smile.  She’d been just a month shy of turning eleven, then.

She hated that picture.

She hated it all the more because she couldn’t help but wonder if the time would come when that picture would be hanging over the front desk in black and white, smiling that guileless goofy smile that was everything she didn’t want people to remember about her.

Hell, were they even doing Gallant justice?  The guy who’d set out to be the literal knight in shining armor, lived his life with more chivalry than any five people you plucked off the street?  All he got was a photo and a name on a memorial.

“You okay?” Flechette asked.

Vista tore her eyes from the portraits, “I’m fine.  Let’s go, Weld’s waiting.”

Without waiting for Flechette, she marched for the elevator.  Flechette fell in step behind her.

Everyone else was sitting in the meeting room, except for Director Piggot, who stood with her arms folded.

“Thank you for being prompt,” Piggot spoke, “Would you please have a seat?”

Vista obediently sat in the chair closest to her.  Flechette found a chair beside Weld.

“Kid Win?” Piggot prompted.

“Here’s the deal, guys.  I went out to talk to Chariot, and there’s a bit of a complication.”  He tapped the screen of his smartphone, and the computer screen at one end of the table changed to show text from a series of emails.  “Chariot hasn’t yet agreed to join the team, but there’s evidence that he fully intends to join as a mole for an unknown party.”

“This evidence was assumed using legal methods, of course,” Piggot spoke.

“Of course,” Kid Win grinned in a way that left no doubt for anyone present that he was lying through his teeth.  “We believe this unknown party is Coil.  There’s no other criminals in town that would really do this.  Fenrir’s Chosen aren’t that subtle, and they’re too racist to work with Chariot.  Purity’s group is, again, too racist.  The Undersiders aren’t well-funded enough.  It doesn’t fit the Travelers’ MO.”

“That,” Piggot spoke, “And there are prior cases of Coil using undercover operatives.”

“Prior cases?” Weld asked.

“This doesn’t leave this room,” Piggot spoke.  Vista nodded alongside everyone else.  “We know there are three agents employed in this very building who are working for Coil.”

“Seriously?” Clockblocker asked.  “As in, right now?”

“Yes,” Piggot nodded, “We might have gone entirely unaware, but Dragon found that one face on our security camera footage matched up with that of a known soldier of fortune.  On investigation, we found two more.  Capable gunmen, each with a wide array of skills ranging from facility with computers to multiple languages.  Very much the type Coil would employ.  We might have arrested them, but I spoke with people with higher credentials and clearance than myself, and we came to the unanimous agreement that it would be ideal to keep those mercenaries employed here.  It allows us to keep a close eye on them for knowledge we could use, and we occasionally feed them bad or misleading information, obviously with a great deal of consideration each time.

“Which brings me to the primary subject of this meeting,” Piggot informed them.  “I would like to do the very same thing here, with Chariot.  He would work alongside you, quite likely see you unmasked.  You would socialize with him, and you would pretend not to know that he is passing on information to his employer.  For that, for the risks you would be undertaking, I require your express permission.”

Kid Win whistled.

“Dealing with the relationships between team members is difficult enough to begin with,” Weld spoke, “And you want to add this into the mix?”

“I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I didn’t think you could handle it.”

“What if we say no?” Clockblocker asked.

“If only one or two of you disagreed, out of fear of your civilian identities being used against you, I would propose splitting up your team’s schedules so you did not share any shifts with Chariot.  Ideally this would coincide with each of you returning to school, so your busy schedules could serve as sufficient excuse for why you do not cross paths with the boy.  Given how complicated this becomes, I would much prefer that all of you were onboard.”

“I have no problem with it,” Weld spoke, “But I have no secret identity, no friends or family here to watch out for.  I totally, one hundred percent understand if anyone else has objections.”

“Not a local or a long term member of the team, here,” Flechette said, “My vote probably shouldn’t count, but I’m okay with it, if it’s what the PRT needs to do.”

“Good,” Piggot spoke, “And the rest of you?”

Shadow Stalker was next to agree, followed by Kid Win, Vista and then a reluctant Clockblocker.

Piggot offered them a rare smile, “Good.  For your information, the earpiece communication channel, the computers at this console, the spare laptops and the spare smartphones will all be continually monitored by a team upstairs.  Your own laptops and smartphones will be free of this prying.  This makes it doubly important that you do not lose these possessions or let him gain access to them.”

“He’s a tinker,” Kid Win pointed out, “He might be able to figure out he’s being watched.”

“Admittedly true, but I have assurances from Dragon that the programs and devices she has put together are sufficiently discreet.”  She clasped her hands together, “Thank you, Wards, for your cooperation.  Your service since the start of the Endbringer event has been exemplary.  Trust me when I say I will find some way to make it up to you.”

She moved to leave, stopped, “And Kid Win?  Good work.”

Kid Win smiled broadly.

The Wards watched in silence until the moment the elevator door closed.

“It’s really freaking creepy when Piggy acts human,” Clockblocker commented.  There were chuckles from the rest of the group.  Vista’s own titter was tinged with relief.  The crack was a sign that Dennis was putting out an effort, acting more like his old self.

“Alright guys,” Weld spoke, clapping his hands together once, generating a muted clink, “We needed to be ready with a response in case Chariot replied, I’m sorry about interrupting your nights.  Lily, could I have a word with you before you head out again?”

Flechette nodded and followed Weld to the far corner of the room.

Vista went to get a sports drink from the kitchen in one of the alcoves.  Kid Win was sketching in a notebook.  If he was feeling inspired, it would be best to leave him alone.

She stood behind him at enough of a distance to avoid distracting him, and watched the comedy on the TV, sipping her drink.  She felt a hand on her shoulder, turned to see Weld.

Weld spoke quietly, “You look like you could use a shower.  Go warm up, then get yourself dry and in comfortable clothes.  Clockblocker is replacing you on your patrol, you can come with me in a few hours.”

She nodded.

“Come see me when you’re done.  I want to have a chat.  Nothing bad.”

She nodded again.  So Flechette said something.

She headed into the bathrooms, detoured into the adjacent girl’s bathroom with accompanying showers.  She kicked off her boots, removed her body armor, and hung the armor on one of the drying dummies.  She removed the dress and peeled off the stockings, and hung the clothes on a second dummy, where they would be subjected to a steady, gentle flow of warm air.  Her boots were placed upside down on the heating vent below the dummies, propped up against the wall.  She removed her underwear last, putting it in a basket with the rabbit Parian had made, and grabbed a towel.

It felt strange, removing her costume.  It was like she wasn’t herself.  When had she started seeing herself more as Vista than as Missy Biron?  When her parents divorced, and she started taking extra shifts to get away from the oppressive atmosphere?  After one year on the team, two?

She hung the towel up and stood under the spray of hot water, rinsing off the dirt and the grime that had come with the damp, dirty water that was everywhere outside, now.  It didn’t take long to soap up and rinse off, but she spent a long few minutes leaning there with her hands against one wall of the stall, letting the water run over her, not thinking about anything in particular.

She cranked the water off and walked over to the sink to look at herself in the mirror, her towel around her shoulders.

The water had removed most of it, but there was a line of dried blood flecks on her throat from where the wire had pulled against it.  She had another, similar, mark on her left arm, by her elbow.  She picked the flecks away with one fingernail, then rinsed her finger clean with a spray of water from the faucet.  Only a pink line remained.  Neither serious enough to warrant worrying about.  There was bruising on one of her knees, the thigh and around the side of her pelvis where the bone was closest to the skin, from where rubble had fallen on her, green-yellow in color.

There were older injuries too.  Small scars on her hands, tiny cuts on her legs, the bump of a dime-sized keloid scar on the top of one foot.  The one that caught her eye was on the right side of her chest, an inch and a half down from her collarbone.  An inch wide, the scar puckered inward a bit.  It had been the result of an altercation with Hookwolf as the villain escaped the scene of a grisly attack on a grocer, a year ago.  A blade on the villain’s arm had punctured her armor as he’d knocked her aside.  She’d felt the pain of her skin being penetrated and she’d kept quiet about it out of a desperate need to shake the label of being the team baby.  She didn’t want to be seen as the one always in need of help and protection.  It would have been embarrassing to ask for medical attention, only for it to be a scratch.

It had only been later that she’d seen how serious it was, how much it had been bleeding into the fabric of her costume, underneath her breastplate. She’d stitched it up herself, here, in the showers.  She’d done as best as she was able, worked with a kind of grim determination.  Not the most competent job, in the end.

She kind of regretted that series of decisions, now.  She was a late bloomer, looked younger than she was, but when she did eventually have the sort of cleavage she could show off, the scar would be there, plain as day.  It might even be worse, when that time came, depending on how the scar stretched as her chest grew.

Vista might have tried asking Panacea to fix it, but hadn’t been able to summon up the courage.  Now, as she thought about it, she thought maybe she didn’t really want to get rid of it.  A part of her took a perverse kind of pride in the fact that she had a scar, as though it was some kind of proof to herself that she was a good soldier.  It was a sort of validation of the philosophy she’d been outlining to Flechette.  Why stress about a scar on her chest when some villain could kill her before it became an issue?

A toilet flushed in one of the bathroom stalls, and Vista hurried to pull her towel from around her shoulders and wrap it around herself, hiking it up to cover the scar on her chest.

Sophia strolled over to the sink next to Vista.  She gave the younger girl a cool look, “Don’t freak out, midget.  It’s not like you have anything worth hiding.”

Bristling at the midget comment and the crack about her chest, Vista just stared at herself in the mirror, ignoring the girl.

Sophia finished washing her hands, then got her toothbrush and brushed her teeth.  She took her time, while Vista stood there, clutching the towel around herself with both hands.

Finishing, Sophia put her toothbrush away, and, as she’d been doing recently, put a hand on Vista’s head as she passed by.  Only this time, she mussed up the younger girl’s hair, with more roughness than was necessary.  “Carry on, kid.”

Great, Vista thought.  Dennis might be acting more like his old self, but Sophia is too.

She combed out her hair, sorting out the tangles that Sophia’s attention had given her, dried off, and then went to her locker to get a change of clothes: A t-shirt, sweatshirt and flannel pyjama pants.  Comfortable clothes.  She pulled on slippers and went to find Weld.

Sophia was manning the console, browsing Facebook.  Kid Win was testing out the armor – four guns with the size and shape of large pears were floating around the shoulders in a loose formation.

Rather than distract Chris or have to deal with Sophia again, Vista left the headquarters and headed into the elevator.  Weld’s room was in the hallways one floor up, opposite Kid Win’s workshop.

The door was open, and he was there, reclining on the a heavy-duty chair of the same model as the one he had in the conference room.  He had headphones on, his feet on a granite counter where his computer sat.  She’d never been in his room.  Looking around, she saw rack upon rack of CDs, DVDs and vinyl records.  There was no bed, but he didn’t really need to sleep, so that made some sense.  It was easily possible that he slept in the chair.

His head was bobbing with the music until he spotted her.  He gave her a quick nod, pulled off his headphones and turned off the speaker system.

“You wanted to talk to me?” she asked.

“I sent Flechette on patrol with you because she’s got an objective perspective on the team, and I wanted to see if her thoughts on you echoed my own.  True enough, you were only out for a short while, and she’s already expressed concerns.”

“Okay.”

“Tell me straight up, are you doing okay?”

“People keep asking me that.  I’m fine.”

“Flechette said you were sounding pretty fatalistic when you were on patrol, a little while ago.  I know you were fond of Gallant, that you were pretty inconsolable when you were in the hospital, at his bedside.”

Vista looked away.

“And now you’re acting like nothing fazes you, even the idea of you maybe dying in the near future.  I have to know, Missy.  Do you have a death wish?  Are you going to be putting yourself in unnecessary danger?”

“No,” she said.  When his expression didn’t change, she repeated herself, louder, “No.  You saw me against the Travelers.  I don’t think I did anything stupid there.”

“You didn’t.”

“I just want to do a good job as a member of this team.  Carry on their memory.  Act like they would want me to act.  I can work twice as hard, be twice as tough, twice as strong, if it means making up for them being gone.”

“That’s a pretty crazy burden to be shouldering.”

“It’s fine.”

“And it could go somewhere problematic, if you get frustrated, let it consume you, alongside this blasé attitude towards death you seem to be adopting.”

“I can deal.”

Weld sighed.  “Maybe.  Maybe not.  You know what I think?”

Vista shrugged.

“I think you should let your teammates take some of the responsibility there.  Trust them to help carry on the legacy.”

She shook her head, “Nobody else seems to care as much-”

Weld raised a hand, “Stop.  Let me finish.  Remember that your teammates have their individual strengths to their personalities.  I don’t know enough about Aegis or Gallant to say for sure, but I think maybe Clockblocker is stepping up to become more of a leader, in Aegis’s absence.  It could be part of why there’s friction between him and me, even if he doesn’t fully realize it.”

“Gallant was sort of preparing to be the team leader, for when Aegis graduated,” Vista said, her voice quiet.

Weld nodded.  “The impression I’ve picked up, and forgive me if I’m off target, is that Aegis was the head of the team, the leader, strategist and manager.  Gallant, maybe, was the heart.  The guy who tied you all together, kept the interpersonal stuff running smoothly.  Would I be wrong in assuming he was the one who handled Sophia best?”

Vista shook her head.  A lump was growing in her throat.

“Okay.  With all this in mind, I have one suggestion and two orders.  My suggestion?  Stop trying to be everything they were.  Be what you’re good at, a caring, sweet young woman who everyone on the team likes.  My professional opinion is that you have it in you to fill some of that void Gallant left.  Use that empathic nature of yours to help others with their own struggles.  Be the team’s heart.”

Her eyes started watering.  She blinked the tears away.

“And my orders?”

“Order number one is that you go see the PRT’s therapist.  If I can clear it with Director Piggot, figure out a way to make the patrol schedules work, I’m going to try to get everyone to go.  I’m honestly kind of flabbergasted that nobody higher up than me has mandated it already.”

“Okay.”  In a way, she was relieved, at that instruction.

“Order number two is to let yourself cry, damn it.  Stop holding it back.”

Just the mention of crying made her eyes water again.  Vista wiped it away once more, “I’ve cried enough.”

“If your body wants to cry, then you should listen to it.  It doesn’t make you any weaker if you let it happen.  You think I’ve never cried?  Looking like I do, facing the disappointments and frustrations I have?  Maybe it’s self-serving to think so, but I think it takes a kind of strength to let yourself face your emotions like that.”

The tears were rolling down her cheeks, now.  She let her head hang, her damp hair a curtain between her and her team leader.  He stood, pulled her into a hug.  She pressed her face against his shirt.  It was soft, but the body beneath was hard, unyielding.  It was still very gentle.

When she pulled away, a few minutes later, his shirt was damp.  She sniffled, taking the offered tissue to wipe at her eyes and nose, Weld spoke, gently, “I’m always here to talk, and the therapist will be there too.”

Vista nodded.

“If you need a break from the team, just say the word.  I’ll talk to Piggot.”

She shook her head, “No.  I want to work.  I want to help.”

“Okay.  Then we’ve got patrol in… two hours and fifteen minutes.  Go relax, watch some TV, maybe take a nap.”

“Alright.  Don’t you dare let me sleep through patrol.”

“I wouldn’t.”

She made her way back to the elevator, noting the lights were on in Kid Win’s workshop.  Heading back down to the base, she walked toward her cubicle-room.

“Holy crap, you’ve been crying again?  I thought you were over that.”  Sophia commented from the console.  She was on her laptop, sitting just to the right of the main console.  Nobody else was present in the headquarters.  Again, the two of them were alone.  Was Sophia’s nice act only for when others were around?

Vista turned, irritated.  “I was venting a little with Weld, what’s your issue?”

“I just really hate crybabies,” Sophia turned back to the computer.

Crybaby.  Whatever else someone could say about Sophia, there was no denying that she was very, very good at finding someone’s weak points, be it during a brawl or in an argument.  Vista couldn’t think of an insult that would have needled her more.

“Bitch,” Vista muttered, moving toward her room.

She thought she spoke quietly enough that Sophia didn’t hear, but the girl did, because she had a response.  “You annoyed him, you know.”

Vista stopped in her tracks, stayed where she was, her back to Sophia.  She replied without turning around “Weld?  You don’t know-”

“Gallant.  Twelve year old following him around all the time, brimming with prepubescent lust and lovesick infatuation?  And he can feel all of her emotions?  You know how gross that would be?  How disturbing and awkward?”

Vista clenched her fists.

Sophia went on, “Think about it, every time you got just a little turned on while you looked at him?  Every time you crushed on him?  He felt it, forced himself to smile and play nice even as you totally repulsed him, because he was that kind of guy.  You know he was that kind of guy.”

“I loved him,” Vista spoke.  The first time she’d spoken the words aloud.  Why did it have to be to Sophia?  Why couldn’t she have said it to Gallant, before he passed?  “There’s nothing gross about love.”

“You don’t know what love is, little one,” Sophia’s condescending tone rang across the room, “It was a first crush, a little infatuation.  Real love is what he had with Glory Girl… that long-term bond that survived through a dozen really nasty fights, and brought them back together again and again.  A schoolgirl crush is easy.  Real love is hard, something tempered and enduring.”

Vista turned to look at the older girl.

Sophia was reclining in her chair.  She smiled a little, “I know it sucks to hear now, but it’s better to hear it straight than to look back and realize how horribly stupid you sounded, five or ten years down the road.”

“I am not going to feel stupid for how I feel now.”

Sophia shrugged, “Kids.”  She turned her attention to Facebook.

Vista unclenched her fist.  She could tip Sophia out of her chair, bend the computer screen, carry out any number of petty revenges.  But Weld’s advice stuck in her head.

“What happened to you, Sophia?”

Sophia looked over her shoulder.  “You’re still here?”

“What kind of situation led to you becoming like this?  So casually cruel, so lacking in basic human decency?”

“My advice is for your own benefit, little tyke.  I’m not the bad guy.”

“You’re the only one who doesn’t have any friends on the team, you keep yourself at a distance, you talk only with your friend or friends from your civilian life.  Even there, you’re always in trouble.  Getting suspended, picking fights.  It’s like you want to break your probation and go to some juvenile detention facility for the next few years.”

“Not your business.”

“Out in costume, you’re scary.  You hurt people like you’re hungry for it.  I just want to know why.  Where did you come from?  What situation led to you being like this?”

“Drop the fucking subject.  You’re irritating me.”

Vista sighed.  Feeling the traces of anger and the hurt from Sophia’s words, she still tried to soften her parting words as she turned to go back to her room, “If you ever do want to talk about it, I’m willing to listen.”

“I’m not about to talk about it with you.  Fix your own shit before you start worrying about me, crybaby.”

Frustrated, disappointed in herself for failing in her first genuine effort at taking Weld’s advice, trying to reach out to a team member that needed it, Vista shook her head, muttered, “I pity you.”

The sound of a laptop crashing to the ground made Vista turn.  She saw Sophia in her shadow state, wispy, her skeleton visible beneath her skin, warped.  The girl’s eyes were too reflective, her entire body seemed to bend and distort, not completely solid as she leaped towards Vista.

Sophia dropped out of her shadow state in time to push Vista flat onto her back, hard, one fist gripping the collar of the younger girl’s t-shirt.  She shook her.  “Pity?”

Feeling strangely calm despite the pain that radiated through the back of her head, where it had struck the ground, Vista spoke, “Weld said it takes a kind of strength to face your emotions.  Are you really that scared, Sophia, that you’d attack me instead of talk to me?”

Sophia raised a clenched fist.  Vista screwed one eye shut, anticipating the hit.  It would almost be worth it if she hit me and violate the conditions of her membership on the team, to have her gone.  But we need all the help we can get, right now.  “The security cameras are watching us right now.”

Sophia dropped her hand, stood, and stalked over to the far side of the room.  She gathered her costume in her arms.  “I’m going on patrol.”

“It’s not your shift,” Vista spoke, sitting up.

“Don’t fucking care.  If Weld asks, I’m doing a double shift.”

And then Sophia was gone, having used her shadow state to disappear through the elevator door.

“Okay,” Vista spoke, pulling herself to her feet. “Guess I’m manning the console.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Sentinel 9.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I’m a tinker.  I’m supposed to be smart.

So how can I have been so stupid?

Ballistic raised one hand and pointed at Kid Win.  He waited until Kid Win moved before kicking at the uneven, rubble-strewn ground, sending a spray of concrete and wood fragments flying like a hail of bullets.  It only grazed the teenage hero mid-leap, lacerating the side of his stomach, hip and thigh, chipping his armor.  It still hit hard enough that it twisted him in midair.  He landed on his back atop the rubble that covered the ground, grunted.

“Hey!” Ballistic bellowed, “Little girl!”

Kid Win saw Ballistic pointing at Vista.  The villain, between his build and armor, had the frame of a football player, a dramatic contrast to the young heroine.  He pointed at her, paused long enough for her to bend the ground into a semblance of cover, then launched a chunk of concrete at her.

The concrete flew at an angle that wouldn’t have hit the girl anyways, struck the barrier and shattered, sending debris careening onto and into the girl.  Vista screamed and fell backwards, part of her barrier crumbling to land on top of her.

He’s telling us exactly where he’s going to attack next.

Kid Win looked up, saw Sundancer with her orb hovering a good fifteen feet off the ground, keeping it away from the walls of the building and the corpses that were hung above them.  Even though it was fifteen feet up and thirty feet away, he could feel the heat of it prickle his exposed skin.  He knew from the Endbringer fight that she could make it bigger, move it faster.

As the burning sphere drifted forward, staying at roughly the same height, Flechette and Glory Girl were forced to scramble away.  Shadow Stalker leaped off of the top of the wall and into the alleyway next to the building to get away from the heat.  Only Vista remained where she was, caught under debris that she was striving to shrink down and push away.

It dawned on Kid Win.  Sundancer and Ballistic, at the very least, were holding back.  Because they were strong enough that going all out would leave corpses.

The revelation didn’t make him feel any better.  In fact, it was just the opposite.  If these guys got desperate or panicked, they might stop being so polite about it.

Trickster and Genesis were tangling with Weld and Clockblocker – Clockblocker was putting paper in the air, freezing it to give himself footholds to go after his flying opponent.  Any time Genesis moved to attack, Clockblocker set paper in her way, edge towards her, or he tried to duck in close enough to touch her.  Giving up on more physical means, she exhaled a cloud of the choking smoke.  Clockblocker and Weld both worked together to minimize the spread of the cloud, using paper and plywood, freezing it in place with Clockblocker’s power.

Kid Win decided they had a handle on that.  It was up to him to help against Ballistic and Sundancer.

As he climbed to his feet, breaking into a run before he was even standing straight, he raised his spark pistol and fired off a series of oversized blue sparks at Ballistic.

Trickster managed to teleport him again, swapping his position with Ballistic’s.  The forward momentum of his sprint was enough to get him out of the way of his own gunfire.

His spark pistol sported a small power core that used spatial warping technology to magnify and then reabsorb a steady electrical current.  The barrel was wired with a helix-shaped electromagnetic rail, based on some of Armsmaster’s old data on the ‘hard’ light Purity and Dauntless created.  Nanomolecular, ionically charged rifling on the barrel’s interior was arranged to guide the fired charges into a rough elliptical shape, which sustained their shape and consistency the longest.

In laymen’s terminology, it was not unlike a power bar that was plugged into itself, with a small addition that made each revolution of the current larger than the one before.  An attached battery kept the current going.  The shots themselves were ‘hard’ electricity condensed into balls, which meant they had a physical impact to them, due to how they carried and transferred kinetic energy.   Given how the weapon charged, waiting a few seconds between shots meant the next shot hit harder, up to a limit.

I can make something like this, which is brilliant, then I go and dismantle my fricking hoverboard to get parts for a project I never even finish.  Idiot.

Ballistic marched towards Vista, who was trying to climb to her feet.  He was intercepted by Glory Girl, who slammed him into a wall.  She punched him, drove her knee into his gut, then slammed him against the wall again, to keep him off-balance and hurting.

Ballistic slumped against her and grabbed at the collar of her costume for support.  A second later, Glory Girl was a blur, disappearing into the skyline.  His attacker gone, Ballistic fell onto his hands and knees with a grunt.

Flechette threw a handful of darts at Sundancer, pinning the girl against the wall.  Somehow Flechette had avoided Trickster’s attention.  How?  Kid Win turned to look, saw that she was standing so her body blocked Trickster’s line of sight to both the darts and his teammate.

So he can only teleport what he sees?

Kid Win moved to mimic Flechette’s technique, running to a position where he would be between the injured Ballistic and Trickster.  He cocked his spark pistol.

He was nearly lined up for his shot when his gun disappeared from his hand, an awkwardly sized piece of wood taking its place.  A second later, his mask and visor cracked against a hard surface.  He had to grip the wall to steady himself and keep from falling.  He’d been teleported.

Then the wall moved beneath his hand, and he heard Clockblocker shout, “Get down, Kid!”

He let himself fall, simultaneously realizing he had been leaning against Genesis, in her gargoyle-like form.  Weld slammed into the villainess, his left hand in the form of a heavy miner’s pick.  It did a surprising amount of damage, but she didn’t seem to care.  She gripped Weld around the face with a claw, raked his chest twice with criss-crossing slashes of her other hand, leaving deep gouges in the metal.  The same noxious black smoke that she had been breathing began to billow out of the hole the pick had made in her chest.

Clockblocker charged, but Genesis shoved Weld so the two heroes stumbled into one another, delaying them long enough for her to leap into the air.  She beat her wings to keep herself aloft and out of reach.

Kid Win unslung his laser rifle and fired at the villainess.  His first shot grazed her, as one flap of her wings carried her higher into the air, but the next two hit the mark.  One struck her in the shoulder, leaving a hole large enough to fit his hand through, the other struck her in the side of the head, doing a similar amount of damage.

Genesis dropped from the sky, exploded into a mess of dark smoke and pebbles as she struck the ground.

Feeling a moment’s panic, he checked the settings on his gun.  Normal levels, no anomalies.  It could heat metal and other inorganic materials, cut through more fragile materials, but against a person, it wouldn’t do more than hurt and maybe leave the mildest kind of burn.

That’s her power, he reminded himself, you didn’t kill her.

But his gun had done a surprising amount of damage.  Was it some interaction with how she pulled her new shapes together?  A specific wavelength, a weakness to lasers?

He wasn’t about to complain.  He wheeled around, fired on the other villains.

An injured Ballistic opened fire on Vista, discharging a series of pieces of rubble at an angle.  It struck the ground just in front of the girl and fallout from the impacts showered her.  Each shot drove her back further, buying him a chance to limp to Sundancer’s side.  He touched the darts that were fixing her to the wall, sending them flying into Weld’s face.

“Fuck!” Weld cursed, the metal spikes of the darts jutting out of his jaw, cheekbone, eyebrow and forehead, “Takes forever to get my face right after something like this!”

Trickster’s teleportations had placed the enemy’s group in the interior of the building, with the Wards surrounding them.

Surrounding one’s enemy wasn’t quite an advantage when the enemy could teleport, but for a moment, they all paused where they were, various weapons at the ready.  It was the kind of momentary peace that fell when everyone was waiting to react to what the others were doing.

A wind blew past them, and Kid Win blinked as a fat droplet of water spattered against his visor.  It was starting to drizzle.  He glanced up at the corpses where they hung on the walls of the building.

“The water’s going to wash away the evidence if you don’t let us go and hurry to check on the bodies,” Trickster spoke.

“Crime scene techs can’t get here in time with the roads like they are,” Weld spoke.  “And we’re not allowed to touch the evidence anyways.  Rules.”

“Rules?  You shouldn’t sweat those things so much,” Trickster chuckled, “Here, I’ll help you out.”

Weld disappeared, and the burned corpse flopped to the ground.

“Shit!” Clockblocker shouted, running forward.

Weld dropped from the wall for the second time in a matter of minutes as the restraints intended for the woman’s corpse tore free of the concrete.  Vista reshaped the wall to ease his descent.  Kid Win raised his laser rifle to fire at Trickster.

Dumb.  He regretted it the second his finger left the trigger.

As he predicted, he found himself somewhere else in the blink of an eye, and the impact of his own gunfire slammed into his back, intensely hot.  He threw himself to the ground at the base of the building, where water pooled, rolling so his back was submerged.

It’s not lethal, can’t do any permanent harm, you had it vetted, tested on pig meat.

The balance of the fight had abruptly shifted.  Clockblocker, Flechette and Vista were where the three Travelers had been, and vice versa.

“Nuh uh uh, kiddo,” Trickster spoke, as the gap in the wall began closing behind his group, “Up you go.”

The flayed corpse appeared in Vista’s position.

No!  Kid Win turned, saw Vista on the wall.  She’d gotten tangled in the loops of wire that had been holding the corpse up.  The metal wire was coiled around a shattered part of the wall, and more than one wire had caught around her neck.  Another looping of wire bound her body, one of her arms caught against her side.  She struggled to pull at the wire on her neck with her free hand, but it was little help.  The wire pulled so tightly against her throat that Kid Win feared it would cut her skin.

“Trickster!” Sundancer cried out, horrified.

“Just run!” was the villain’s only reply.  The three villains started running, leaving the building behind, their footsteps sloshing and splashing.

Kid Win raised his laser pistol, aimed carefully, then fired, landing the shot a half-foot to the right of Vista’s throat.  The wires heated and split, freeing her, and she dropped a foot before catching on more wires.  Nothing dangerous, this time, but it was a fair distance to fall and one slip could see her getting cut on the wire, strangled or cracking her head open as she fell.

Shadow Stalker materialized behind Trickster, catching him around the throat in a headlock.  She used one foot to kick his feet out from under him, and then forced him face first into the water.

Kid Win hesitated.  Help her or help Vista?

Vista.  Shadow Stalker would say she could handle herself.  Made a point of trying to.

He fired more shots to free Vista, missing the wires one or two times.  The heroine, for her part, focused on angling the wall beneath her to allow herself to slide down instead of falling the full distance.

Ballistic shot Shadow Stalker, driving her back.  The attack had left a gaping hole just below her heart, the edges wispy.  The gap closed, but the attack had separated her from Trickster, and hurt her badly enough that she crumpled to the ground, a hand to her chest.

Kid Win fired a salvo at the retreating villains, grazed Ballistic.  Sundancer turned, directing her orb between their groups.  She dropped it into the water.  Massive clouds of heated steam rose where the orb met water, obscuring the battlefield.

By the time it cleared, the villains were gone.

It took a minute to check that none of them had suffered any permanent damage.  After some debate, they moved the bodies to a more secure, dry spot, inside the building. Glory Girl managed to make her way back two minutes after the Travelers were gone, helped with the last body that still hung on the wall.  By the time they were done, the rain was pouring down.

Kid Win stared down at the corpses, an ugly feeling in his gut.

He was dumb, easily distracted, prone to leaving his projects unfinished, and it was moments like this that this knowledge hit him particularly hard.  His dad had made him get tested, and the doctors had labeled him with ADD and dyscalculia.  He held to the opinion that the ADD diagnosis was way overused – he liked to think that he was just a daydreamer, prone to getting lost in his thoughts.

The dyscalculia was something concrete that he couldn’t deny or explain away.  He couldn’t keep numbers in his head, couldn’t make the most basic intuitive leaps or connections with them.

All of that had been before he got his powers.  Nothing had changed, except that now he could visualize something, instinctively know how he could put it together.  His disability or disabilities put him a step behind the rest.  His daydreaming was worse, because his thoughts were so damn interesting, now.  He couldn’t take reliable measurements without using computers to do it.  Couldn’t finish half his projects without feeling compelled to move on to something else.

The PRT staff insisted he was exceptional with antigrav and guns, had it even marked in his file, but he knew it wasn’t so true.  He finished his guns because they were simple, in their own way.  It was easy enough to take three half-finished gun projects and mash them together.  Create something with multiple settings, even.  As far as he was aware, he was the only Tinker in the PRT’s records that didn’t have a defined specialty, gimmick or trick.  He was increasingly worried that his special talent as a tinker was being able to occasionally make something despite his learning disability.  Which would suck, if it were true.

There were exceptions.  He’d finished bigger projects.  His hoverboard, driven by the idea of how awesome it would be to fly.  Even then, it had been a chore.  Monumentally stupid of him to dismantle it.  The idea and motivation driving the action had been good: he was graduating the Wards in a little while, he’d be expected to change his name and adjust his methods, because an adult calling himself Kid Win was lame.  He’d had an idea about a harness with a floating array of turrets that could fire different munitions depending on what gun he holstered in the main slot.  Self adjusting and adaptive the way his Alternator Cannon was.  Except he’d gotten frustrated at a snag in the testing, put it down to take a break and hadn’t picked it up again in six days.  His hoverboard had effectively been destroyed for no reason, when it might have made the difference in getting the Travelers into custody.

His Alternator Cannon was the real gem.  It had been the result of a medication the PRT’s doctor had prescribed, which he’d been forced to stop after two weeks when he began to get increasingly dizzy, anxious and nauseous.  While he’d been taking the pills, he’d been focused, had a glimpse, maybe, of what he could do if it weren’t for his distractibility and daydreaming.  When Piggy had spoken of destroying the thing, the mere thought had been crushing.  Then Leviathan had destroyed it for real, maybe the only truly brilliant thing he’d be able to make.  He harbored fears it might even the only brilliant thing he’d ever be able to make.

He wasn’t the worst hero ever, he knew that.  He had things he could do.  He could let the worries and the dozens of unfinished projects alone, most days.  That changed when his team got thrashed.  Thoughts like that had been plaguing him since the Endbringer event a week ago.  He couldn’t shake the notion that he was in the running for the weakest member of the team.  The notion that he was dumb, second-rate.  That this loss, here, was his fault, because he had dropped the ball.  The people of this city deserve a better hero, a more focused one.

Weld spoke, disturbing him from his thoughts, “I just got a message.  PRT is on their way.  We head back now.”

Hearing the unenthusiastic replies of his teammates, Kid Win realized that the rest of the team wasn’t in any better of a mood than he was.  Losing had a way of doing that.

Strangely comforting.

“Got word from the Protectorate.  They’re handling the case with the bodies, we’re not to touch it or get involved in any way,” Weld spoke, folding his arms.  He had what looked like acne – blisters of extra-shiny metal on his face where the remainder of the darts hadn’t yet been fully integrated into his ‘skin’.  He reclined in an expensive, custom-made office chair, capable of supporting his dense, heavy body.  Everyone else had found seats in the central room of their headquarters.  Everyone, that was, except for Glory Girl, who had gone home.  She wasn’t yet an official member of the team.

“No word on what’s going on?” Clockblocker asked.

“They’re staying quiet on the subject,” Weld spoke.

Vista leaned forward, “Maybe a serial killer?”

“We should focus on what we do know,” Weld shook his head. “As far as tonight’s patrols-“

“Actually,” Kid Win cut in, “Sorry.  But I have one theory.”

“What?” Clockblocker asked.

Kid Win glanced at Weld, checking to see if their leader was ok with it.  Weld didn’t say anything, which he took as assent to continue.

“There were two other crime scenes, right?  Any idea if there were the same number of bodies at each crime scene?”

“Same number-” Weld raised an eyebrow, “Why… Oh.  Shit.  I think I follow.”

Smarter than you’d think, given his brute-force power and his appearance, Kid Win realized.  Or I’m just that bad with numbers.  The connection took me twenty minutes to make.

“Three crime scenes with three bodies each.  So it’d be nine bodies?” Clockblocker asked, “Each killed in some different way?  I don’t see what killer that would fit with.”

“Not one killer,” Kid Win answered, “Nine bodies, each for different killers.”

“The Slaughterhouse Nine,” Clockblocker leaned back in his seat, groaning, “Fuck, that’d be all we needed.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time they’ve arrived at a location in the wake of an Endbringer event,” Flechette pointed out.

“Maybe it’s them,” Weld conceded, “And maybe the Protectorate figured that much out, with the clues they have from the other two scenes.  It could be someone or something else.  Either way, it’s not our case, not even in our league, and we should stay as hands off as we can manage.  We need to talk about patrols and tonight’s duties.”

“The grunt work,” Flechette offered a literal grunt to punctuate the statement.  Kid Win and Clockblocker chuckled.

“Vista’s due for a patrol, and as a young member, she has to go with someone.  Lily?”

Flechette smiled a little, “Quick to make me pay for the snark, huh?  No, it’s cool, I’ve been wanting a chance to shoot the shit with Vista.”  She extended her fist, with index finger and thumb extended to form a gun, mock fired it at her junior teammate.  Vista rolled her eyes.

“Clockblocker, you and I will handle the night’s shifts after that.  Your call if you want to patrol with me or not, we can cover different routes and go for a wider area if you’d rather.”

“Alright.  We’ll figure it out.”

“Leaving Shadow Stalker.  You okay with the late-night, Sophia?”

“Yeah, fine,” Sophia didn’t look up from her laptop.

“And me?” Kid Win asked.

“Special duty, tonight,” Weld smiled, “You’re recruiting.”

“Recruiting?”

“There’s a kid calling himself Chariot.  Been racing around the city with a powered suit that lets him move a hundred miles an hour.  Assault finally caught up with him last night, brought him into custody.  Wound up calling the kid’s mom, got him to agree to talk to our recruiter.  You.  You’ll be meeting the kid in his home.”

“Why me?”

“Shared interests.  You’re both tinkers.  You have the best idea of how he thinks.”

Kid Win nodded.  He couldn’t quite put his finger on what he was feeling.  A measure of excitement at the idea of getting to talk to another tinker that wasn’t Armsmaster?  Sure.  Fear?  Would he be replaced by a new tinker?  It was an immature thing to be spooked about, he knew that, but that didn’t make it any less real.

“Cool,” he spoke, by way of agreement.

“You convince him, it’ll look good to the guys upstairs,” Weld informed him.

Right.  Great.  Pressure.

“Now, onto a more serious topic.  I’m seeing that this team is really disorganized, these days.  I have no problem handling the brunt of the paperwork, it gives me a degree of insight into what’s going on that the files don’t.  I don’t even mind cleaning up the kitchen and showers here when the janitors are off duty.  But we really need to communicate.  Last night Flechette went on patrol and ran into a situation with Parian she should have been briefed on.  It could have turned hostile.”

“Sorry,” Vista muttered.

“It turned out okay,” Flechette smiled a little.

“Right.  It’s okay, it’s understandable, given all we’re trying to handle,” Weld reassured her, “But we can’t miss out on details and updates on the overall situation.  The Protectorate have their hands full with the gang wars between Fenrir’s Chosen, Purity’s group and Coil,  they’re now dealing with this serial killer or serial killers, and they’re still updating the records.  So here’s what we’re going to do, I’ve checked it with Piggot, she agrees.  I’m picking up an extra patrol shift, and I’ll be adjusting your patrol shifts down by twenty minutes each, moving them around slightly.  With the downtime that creates, we’re going to have meetings like this, every day.”

Pausing, Weld glanced at Clockblocker, as if expecting a response.  When Clockblocker only nodded assent, Weld’s eyebrows rose a fraction in surprise.  He continued, “Gives us a chance to talk about our recent patrols, fears, concerns, ideas.  Or hell, just talk, because I’m seeing this trend where we only see each other in passing, while patrolling or in class, and some of you are going out of your way to spend time together and hash stuff out, even at the detriment of stuff like school.”

“You’re talking about class, earlier,” Clockblocker said.

“More or less.  Not saying it’s a bad thing, but we can restructure our schedules, make time for it, instead of detracting from an area we need to pay attention to.”

“Sure,” Clockblocker agreed.  Was there a note of irritation in his voice?  Kid Win couldn’t tell.  Dennis was playing along, at least.

“Now, about the paperwork you guys have been submitting, there’s been a few recurring problems…”

Kid Win sighed and settled into his seat.  This was going to be a little while.

The building was ugly, had trash piled up on either side of the front door, a sour smell wafting out from it.  The water level wasn’t so bad here, and the building was almost entirely intact.  The only sign of damage was the boarded up windows on the first and second floors where the glass had been knocked out of the window frames.  Red brick, it seemed like the usual sort of tenement building one would find in the Docks.

He stepped inside.  A Hispanic boy in the front hall whistled sharply as Kid Win stepped inside, while a group of Asian-American boys and girls in dirty clothing ran around him, screaming at a ear-piercing volume as they continued a game, some pointing and hooting at the superhero.  Occupants aside, it was dark, with only two dingy lightbulbs and no open windows.

It’s nine o’clock at night.  Don’t these kids have a bedtime?

He checked the folded paper he had in his hand, found the room number, and headed up the stairs.  A morbidly obese, older man sat halfway up the stairs, maybe a babysitter for the kids.  Kid Win hoped the man was a babysitter, because the man was white and the kids weren’t, meaning he probably wasn’t family.  If he wasn’t getting paid, there was only one uncomfortable explanation for why the man would be willing to tolerate that yelling and squealing.

Or maybe he’s deafLet’s go with that.

The fat old man didn’t budge an inch as Kid Win approached, forcing the boy to squeeze by.  He made his way up, ignored a gang of fit twenty-something Asian guys who were standing guard in the hallway on the second floor.  On the third floor, he headed past people who were sleeping on blankets in the hallway, found apartment 306.

The door opened a second after he knocked.  A tired looking Hispanic woman greeted him, “You’re the superhero, I take it?”

“Yes.  Kid Win,” he extended his hand.  She shook it firmly.

“Ashley Medina.  My son’s back through here.”

There was a sense of pride in the narrow apartment, Kid Win saw.  An undercurrent of aesthetic taste, matching knick-knacks and furniture.   There were marks of a vacuum cleaner’s recent run over the carpet and both kitchen counters and dining room table were immaculately clean in a way that suggested she’d gone to some effort to clean up.  In a building like this, though, there was only so much you could do.  There was a water stain on the ceiling, dark brown marks on the carpet under a small rug, maybe from a previous occupant.

“If you’ll wait here, I’ll get him.”

Kid Win sat on the sofa.  He noticed the cathode ray tube television was missing its screen, had been gutted.  Quite likely for parts.  The toaster was a goner, too.  Only the wireless modem in the corner of the kitchen had survived, green lights blinking.

He has priorities, at least, Kid Win thought, with mild amusement.  Gotta have an internet connection.

When Chariot arrived, Kid Win stood, offered a hand.  There was a delay before the kid shook it.  He was lanky, with big ears and close shorn hair that made him look slightly goofy, but he had a wary look in his eye.  He wore a t-shirt and jeans that were stained with grease, had lots of little cuts and stains on his fingers, hands and forearms.

Been thereSubstandard tools, not enough parts.  I can use that.

“Please sit,” Chariot’s mother said.

Kid Win obliged.  Chariot was the last to take a seat.  Was he reluctant, something else?

“Chariot, is it?”  Kid Win ventured.  God, hope I don’t fuck this up.

“Mm,” was the noncommital reply.

“Just to give me an idea, on a scale of one to ten, how interested are you, in maybe joining the Wards?”

“Ten’s high?”

“Ten’s a lot of interest.”

“Four.”

“Trevor!” Chariot’s mom admonished, “They offer funding, education-“

“We do,” Kid Win interrupted.  If mom pushes, this guy’s only going to get less interested.  Shit, a four is low.  Maybe if I do the talking… “It’s good money, with room for better money.  Especially for a tinker like you or me.”

“How’s that?”

“The guys in charge want tinkers.  They really want tinkers, both because they want us in a position where we won’t be making trouble for them, and because and they want the kind of stuff we can create.”

“I’m not giving up my stuff.”

Kid Win paused.  This is like looking into a mirror to a year and a half ago.  “Look, I can see your TV, your toaster.  Chances are you’ve gone to the Trainyard or a scrapyard to find some stuff.  Old batteries, car parts, chains, good metal, whatever.”

“He wanted to go to the Trainyard,” Chariot’s mother cut in, “I told him no, caught him trying to sneak out.”

Chariot scowled a little, looked away.

This would be easier without her here.  “I get it.  Been there.  You’re hungry to use your power, but more than any other kind of cape, you’re facing a hurdle in terms of the entry-level resources you need.  This is where the team would support you.  You get funding, a lot of funding, to put your stuff together.”

Kid Win reached into his belt, retrieved a compact disc.  He placed it on the glass coffee table, then withdrew a set of small tools from the other side of his belt.  He dismantled the object and began laying out the components one by one.

Chariot reached for the nearest component, and Kid Win moved to block the boy’s hand.  “Don’t touch, please.  Look only.  Trace oils and static charge could damage something.”

The boy gave him an annoyed glance, bent over the table to look closer at the chips.

“What’s this crystal?”  Chariot asked.

“3D computer chip.  Uses light instead of electrical current.  They’re made by this Protectorate tinker down in Texas.  She gets funding to produce a set number every month, in addition to her regular pay.  So long as you’re in the program, you can put in an order for her stuff, with the specs you want.”

“And this metal threading, gold?”

“Gold, for maximum conductibility.”

“That’s a camera, this would be the power source, that part does something with wavelengths, and this reads energy… but I’m not getting it.  What does this do?”

Kid Win quickly slipped the pieces back together, turned the compact device over, then pulled out his smartphone.  Touching the screen, he activated the compact device.  It floated above the coffee table.  He turned his smartphone around to show them the image it was streaming from the device’s camera.

“So much effort, for a video camera?” Chariot’s mother commented, “My tax dollars are going towards this?”

The dumbfounded look Chariot gave his mother put Kid Win in the awkward spot of having to suppress a smile.  This is a point for me.  If I asked him again, what would he say?  Five, six?

“You join the Wards, you get exactly what you need to reach your full potential as a Tinker.”  A small lie there.  Not like I’ve reached my full potential.  “And anything you make, the PRT buys the rights from you.  If you’re willing to give up that much, you can do well for yourself.”

“You’re talking money?” That had piqued Chariot’s interest.  He leaned forward, elbows on his knees.

“I maybe shouldn’t, but I’m going to tell you what I’m getting out of it, because it’s almost definitely going to be the exact same for you.  I get paid, but the money goes straight into a trust.  I’ve made enough to pay for my college education, and every dollar I earn beyond that is going to be waiting for me as a cash award, if and when I graduate from a four-year postsecondary program.  I’m getting four hundred dollars in allowance each month, just to mess around in my workshop, all my materials are paid for, and I currently have about two thousand dollars sitting in the bank, right now, from that.  Once I turn eighteen?  I make more.  It automatically transitions to a job with good pay, working with the Protectorate, and the hours will be totally flexible around any classes I take.”

“But he’s risking his life,” Chariot’s mother spoke.  Chariot frowned.

“He is.  There are responsibilities.  But honestly?  There’s zero way he’s going to be able to go out and try out any of the stuff he’s made without running into trouble.  People are going to pick fights, just because he has powers.  If he tries to hang out in a workshop he establishes on his own, they’re going to find him, strong-arm him into putting something together for them.  Not just villains, either.  Heroes too.  Being a tinker doesn’t just make you a target.  It makes you a resource.  It’s why pretty much every tinker out there is a member of a larger, more powerful team.”

“Then Trevor could just not use his powers?” she spoke.

“Sure,” Kid Win folded his arms, leaning back against the back of the couch.  “What do you think, Chariot?  You think you could keep from using that power of yours?  Be normal?”

Chariot frowned, looked down at his scratched-up hands, “No.”

Kid Win nodded in agreement, “It’s a part of you, Chariot, a part of how you think, now.  I’m telling you this is the best option.  The safest.  Having a team means you’re protected, free to do what you need to do.”

Chariot’s expression indicated clear interest.  Then he frowned, “I don’t want to give up my stuff to others.  It’s mine.”

Something struck Kid Win as off about the reply.  What was it?   It was out of tune with the flow of the conversation, didn’t quite match up with Kid Win’s own experiences being recruited.  Maybe it sounded forced?  But why would Chariot fake reluctance?

He pushed forward, anyways, “I get that, really.  But it’s only given away in name.  You still get to use it, you just can’t give it away or sell it to others.  The benefit is that you gain access to all the stuff and plans other PRT tinkers have made.  I can’t show you any more of that than I have, but the fact is, you’d be able to look at my blueprints as easily as I could look up yours, get inspiration…

“…Or you could look at the sort of stuff Dragon makes.”

Chariot’s eyes lit up.

“Tell me you’re not interested, now.”

“I’m… kind of interested.”

Again, that vibe.  Pretending he’s not as interested as he is.

“They can’t force you to join, but they do want you on the team.  There’s no negotiating.  You’d get the same I get, pretty much, so if you’re holding back or trying to fake like you don’t want to join when you do, you’re just wasting your time and mine.”

“I’m not,” Chariot replied, defensive.  “It’s only… this is a big deal.”

“It is.  So take my card.  Call me if you have any questions, or if you want me to pass on word that you’re joining the team.”

Kid Win fished in his belt and then handed his card to the boy.  Black with white lettering and his starburst-gun emblem on the back.

“Okay,” Chariot replied.

“Talk it over with your mom.  Get back to us.”

“Thank you,” Chariot’s mother spoke, standing.  Kid Win stood as well.  He shook her hand again.

“Not a problem,” Kid Win replied.  He punched the boy lightly on the shoulder as he stood, “Join.  It’d be good to talk shop with someone else that gets this stuff.”

Chariot nodded.

The mother led Kid Win to the door, and he headed out the building – the fat man from the stairwell was gone, and only the Hispanic boy by the front door was still in the hallway.  Kid Win stepped outside.

Something’s off with this scenario.

He tapped his foot a second, then stepped around the building and into the alleyway.  He retrieved his smartphone, and used it to send the hovering camera up to the third floor, checked in the windows where the apartment would be.  The boy was leaving the bathroom, going into his room.  Kid Win moved the camera to the next window over, the boy was sitting down at his computer, turning it on.

Straight to the computer.  Hm.  Kid Win pocketed the hovering camera, then turned his attention to the smartphone.  According to the phone, there were three wireless modems in the building.  One was named with a string of violent swear words, the other was on its default settings.  Both were unlocked.  He chose the third, locked connection, clicked a button on the screen to have his phone decrypt the password.

Fifteen seconds later, he could see someone online.  Kid Win watched the white text scroll by with details on the connection’s activity.

Google docs – pages of technical stuff, the boy was adding notes on gold wiring, shortform notes on antigravity, 3D crystals.  The next page the boy visited, five minutes later, was an email account.

Twenty seconds later, an email was sent.

To: C1298475739@cryptmail.com

Guy from wards came.  I’m in.

Kid Win stared at the screen for a long while.  Cryptmail.  That wouldn’t be an agreement with the PRT.

“So someone got to you before we did,” he muttered to himself.  He tapped the armor over his ear twice to open a communications channel, “Console?”

“Weld here, manning the console.”

“Do me a favor, call everyone back to the base for a quick meeting?  And maybe call Piggot?”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Sentinel 9.3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Welcome to Parahumans 103: Theories and Patterns.  I see we have a packed auditorium, and according to the enrollment list, we have no less than three hundred students taking the TV course.  A bump up from the last two trimesters, so I must be doing something right.”

Clockblocker looked around the room.  Six PRT uniforms sat in the front row, helmets off, three with notebooks open on the desks in front of them.  Weld and Flechette sat in the desks closest to the door, exchanging murmured words as the professor on the screen began going over the course syllabus.

Glory Girl sat just in front of him, wearing a black, long-sleeved shirt, arms folded on her desk, chin resting on the back of one hand.  Vista, odd as it was, sat beside the other heroine, had been the only one to offer any conversation.  When Glory Girl hadn’t seemed interested in talking, Vista had instead offered her silent company.  Clockblocker wasn’t exactly sure how Glory Girl had gotten into the Wards headquarters to attend the screening, but she was here, uncharacteristically quiet, much in the same way that Vista had been this past week.

Kid Win sat to Clockblocker’s right, fidgeting by taking apart his pen and putting it back together, his eyes not leaving the screen.  Shadow Stalker was sitting as far away from everyone else as she could manage, at the back corner of the room.  She sat sideways in her seat, back to the wall, her feet resting on the seat next to her.  Her attention was directed entirely at the keys and screen of her cell phone, rather than the projector screen at the front of the room.

Only thirteen people present, altogether.

“…for disability and pregnancy accommodations, the course syllabus gives you all the details you need on who to contact.  If you aren’t already, you’re going to be sick of hearing all that by the time you graduate.  We’re required to go over it in the first class of every class we teach.

“So.  Let me start off by addressing and banishing some assumptions you may have.  This is not an easy class, and anyone who took Parahumans: History and Society or Parahumans: Case Studies and Powers will be aware of this.  Even for those of you who emerged triumphant from the previous two semesters should know that PARA-103 may be something of a shock to you if this is your first year of University.  Here, primarily, I will be looking for creativity, problem solving and research abilities.  Skills and abilities that, frankly, aren’t stressed enough in high school.

“For this class, I want you to think.  Parahumans.  People with powers.  They’ve been around for nearly thirty years.  Where did they come from?  Why are they here?  It’s common knowledge that parahumans are ordinary individuals who gained abilities.  It is too easy, however, to assume that this is the sum total of our knowledge.  I want you to think further on the subject.  For example, why does virtually every parahuman ability have some application in confrontation and combat?  Is this the nature of humans, to turn any progress to violent ends, be it science or superpower?  Or is it by design, an individual’s hand at work?

“With the destructive potential of these abilities, why do so very few individuals perish in the chaotic and unpredictable emergence of their talents?  For the first two or three weeks of the class, we’ll be talking about these most pivotal moments in a given parahuman’s existence, these trigger events, when an individual first gains their powers, typically through some form of trauma.

“Throughout the course, we’re going to be looking at correlations and patterns, both in relation to trigger events and other things.  For example, how does the nature of the trigger event shape the power?  A study by Garth and Rogers suggests that psychological stress leads to a higher prevalence of mentally driven powers.  Tinkers, thinkers, masters, shakers.  The more physical violence that is involved, the higher the bias towards physically driven powers.  Garth and Rogers suggest a sliding scale, but it may not be that cut and dry.

“A followup study by Garth touches on what we know about cape ‘families’.  If one individual in a family has powers, it is far more likely that others will as well.  Almost always, this trend is either descending or lateral, it seems to transition from parent to child, or one sibling to another, but not from child to parent.  We’ll talk about the theories on why.  For those of you wanting to read ahead, take a look at Garth’s notes on the Dallon and Pelham families in chapter nine.  We can surmise that the different scenarios leading to trigger events may be directly related to the differences in powers, even among closely related members of a cape family.  Similar trigger events and related individuals, similar powers.  The more distant the relation and the more varied the trigger events, the more drastically different the powers they possess in the end.”

Clockblocker glanced at Glory Girl, to see if the mention of her family had stirred her interest.  She hadn’t budged an inch.  Was she asleep?

He couldn’t help but sympathize.  This is a monumental waste of time.  I could be out there, helping people.  Or spending time with my family.  The Protectorate was coordinating shifts so the Wards could collectively get at least some education in the meantime, on Piggot’s orders.  Except this wasn’t useful, this wasn’t applicable to the ongoing crisis right here, right now, in this city.  Cooped up in a PRT conference room, learning stuff that didn’t apply to actual field work.

Hell, it was on videotape, a recording of last year’s lectures.  Why couldn’t they watch it in their off hours?  It was just a fucked up set of priorities enforced on them from the people in charge.

He shifted restlessly, annoyed, angry.

“Trigger events are a crucial element for study, because the timing, nature and spread of these emerging powers may provide a clue as to where these parahuman abilities come from.  More women than men have powers, for example, and there are more powers in undeveloped countries than there are in industrialized ones – Some of you may remember me mentioning this fact in the 101 class, when I was talking about the witch burnings in The People’s Republic of Uganda.

“Another pattern we will be exploring is the apparent effect of multiple trigger events occurring in the same time and place.  There is a very strong correlation between coinciding trigger events and individuals displaying three or more powers rather than one or two predominant ones.”

“Hey, Flechette,” Kid Win called across the room, “You’ve got a bunch of powers, right?”

She turned in her seat, “Sure.”

“Anyone else get powers at the same time you did?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Could someone nearby have gotten their powers, without you knowing?  Way things played out?  Did any capes show up around the same time as you?”

Flechette frowned, “Yeah.  A rather persistent villain.”

“Worth thinking about.”

Weld turned around, “Critical thinking and applying this stuff is good, but let’s not forget the lecture.  Or the other people in the classroom.”

Is he trying to get people to dislike him?  Clockblocker wondered.

The professor on the screen was answering a student’s question, “…I think Eidolon expresses a single power.  But thank you.  Good question, and good lead-in to the next section of the course we’ll be discussing.  After we wrap up on trigger events, we’re going to be moving on to what we call ‘outliers’.  Parahumans or parahuman-related elements that deviate from the norm.  Any guesses?”

“Scion.” A student on the TV spoke.  The camera shifted to him late, and by the time he’d responded, the professor was pointing to another.

“Endbringers.”

“Nilbog.”

“I wouldn’t suggest Nilbog, but we can debate the point later,” the professor spoke, “Perhaps a subject for a course paper.  Scion, yes.  Endbringers?  Yes.  We have no reason or evidence to suspect they gained powers by normal means.  Another group you may or may not be familiar with are what the PRT terms Case Fifty-Threes.  Often the ‘monstrous’ parahumans, we’ll get into more depth on the subject.”

Clockblocker glanced at Weld.  The boy was digging through his canvas backpack for something.  Was he one of them?

“Weeks five and six, assuming we’re on schedule, we’ll pull all earlier material together and discuss the beginnings of the parahuman phenomenon.  Not for the individual, as with trigger events, but as a whole.  Where do capes come from?  There is the patient zero theory, typically working under the assumption that Scion is the source of these abilities.  This, however, raises questions about where Scion came from.  The theory is corroborated by the case of Andrew Hawke, who came into contact with Scion on the very first sighting of the hero, only to manifest powers of his own… but there are others who manifested powers without ever coming into contact with Scion or entering a location where Scion had visited.”

“There’s the viral theory, supposing some advanced virus, though it is flimsy at best in justifications, with no identified culprits, method of transmission or explanation as to how it provides the actual powers.  The genetics theory is popular, but has been thoroughly debunked.  We’re going to talk about how it was debunked…”

Clockblocker felt a vibration at his wrist.  He reached inside his glove to get his cell phone.  A text.

From: Mom

Dad’s not doing well.  You may want to come by the hospital.

He stood, and Weld turned to give him a look.  He ignored the metal skinned boy, headed for the back door of the classroom, his keypad beeping as he dialed the number.  It was ringing as he closed the door behind him.

“Mom?”

“Dennis.”

“How bad is it?”

“As bad as last weekend.  Worse.”

He closed his eyes.  More statement than question, he said, “He’s not getting better.”

“No.”

“Okay.  Do you need me there?  I can use my power, buy the doctors time to think or get prepared if there’s a crisis.”

Her voice was tight.  “No, Dennis.  It’s not that kind of situation.  They’ve got him on a respirator, and the doctors don’t have much hope he’s going to be able to breathe without it, again.  The antibiotics can’t fight the infection on their own.”

“So he’s going to die.”

“I’m sorry.”

“A few hours?  Days?  A week?”

“The doctor says it’ll be the next few days.”

He clenched his fist, relaxed it.  Not fair.

“Hey, mom?  Listen, I’ve got to run.”

“Come by, Dennis.  Before it’s too late.”

“I’ll try.”

“I love you.”

“Love you too.”

He hung up, paused to compose himself.

Not fair.

Stepping back inside the classroom, he returned to his seat, but didn’t sit down.  Instead, he stepped up a little further to where Glory Girl sat and touched her shoulder.  When she raised her head, he pointed to the door.  She nodded, stood.

When they were both in the hallway, he spoke, “Sorry to pull you away from that.”

She shook her head, golden curls swinging, “Not missing anything.  I’ve already taken this class.”

“Oh.  Then why are you here?”

“New Wave may be disbanding.  My mom suggested that if I wanted to keep being a hero, I should consider joining the Wards.  So I’m here, checking things out.  Your leader and director okayed it.”

“Are you?  Joining?”

“Don’t know.  They’re willing, if I agree to some extra rules and stipulations.  They’d be putting me on probationary membership, like they did with Shadow Stalker.  I came by to get a sense of things, see if it’d be worth going through the hassle instead of going solo.  I thought maybe I was ok with doing it until I saw the portraits in the lobby.  Now I’m not so sure.”

Clockblocker nodded.  She didn’t need to explain.  Where the Wards’ portraits hung in the lobby of the PRT offices, the portraits of Aegis and Gallant had been reprinted in black and white, surrounded with thick black frames.  They had been repositioned to be just above the front desk and below the PRT logo, with wreaths and flowers beneath, tokens from the PRT employees.  The building wasn’t open to the public, and was surrounded by PRT squads, but the public would get their chance to pay respects.

Glory Girl had lost three people she was close to on that day.  Gallant – Dean when out of costume – was a loss she shared with Clockblocker.  Her boyfriend, his friend.

“I know it’s crass, I know you guys have rules,” he spoke, “I’ll understand if you get angry.  But… my dad has leukemia.  He was a few days into some pretty rigorous treatments when Leviathan came.  He got hurt when one of the waves hit, and some infection got at him through the wounds.  He has pretty much no immune system, doesn’t have the strength to fight it off.”

“You want me to ask my sister to use her power on him.”

“Please.”

“Okay.”

The response startled him.  He looked up at her, caught off guard.

She explained, “I’m not promising anything.  Like you said, Amy has her rules about taking requests.  But I’ll see if I can convince her.  Again, no promises.”

“Thank you,” he said, “Really.”

“And if you want to pay me back, maybe tell me about Gallant sometime.  Share some stories I wouldn’t get to hear otherwise.”

“For sure.”

The door opened, and Weld stepped out into the hall, followed closely by Vista.  Clockblocker felt a pang of annoyance, bit his tongue before he could say anything.

“Everything okay?” Weld asked.

I could tell them, Clockblocker glanced at Vista, but the rest of the team would find out.  They don’t need another thing to worry about.

“Things are okay,” Clockblocker spoke, carefully.

“We paused the video, waiting until you guys are ready.”

“Alright,” Clockblocker replied.  He added, “Thank you.”

“I’ll trust you have reason for this,” Weld smiled slightly, showing a row of white metal teeth, “But don’t take too long.  You’re on patrol at two this afternoon, and that doesn’t allow us much leeway for delays if we want to finish watching.”

“Alright,” Clockblocker repeated, his tone growing impatient.  He watched as Weld returned to the classroom, shutting the door behind him.  To the closed door, he muttered, “Tool.”

“He’s trying,” Vista piped up.  “It’s hard to be leader, but he’s working hard.”

“That’s my whole problem with him,” Clockblocker answered, annoyed, “He gets on our case about patrols and training and paperwork, then turns around and says he’s not asking us to do anything he isn’t doing himself.  Except he only sleeps one or two hours a night, he barely eats, doesn’t need to use the washroom or shower.  He’s got no friends or family here to look after.  He can afford to work hard.  He’s a f…rigging robot.”  He censored himself for his junior teammate.

Vista shook her head.  “That robot, and he’s not really a robot, by the way, is doing as much paperwork as the rest of us put together.  He only makes us do the paperwork he can’t do himself.  Even if he doesn’t have to.  That gets brownie points from me.”

His temper flared.  “What, are you channeling Gallant, here?  Standing up for…” he trailed off before he could finish.  Realized who he was talking to.  “Shit, no, I…”

Vista just stared at him.  After a second, her eyes got shiny, and she looked down at the ground, an angry expression on her face.   She wheeled around and ran down the hallway.

He moved to chase her, stop her, but the hallway folded together, letting her reach the end in two strides, snapping back to its full length as she passed along it.  She rounded a corner in the distance.

He looked at Glory Girl, his voice small, “I’m sorry.”

She answered him with only a glare.  He wondered if she would hit him.

She relented, looking in the direction Vista had run off.  “It’s okay.  We’re all worn down, at the end of our ropes, and you’re worrying about your dad on top of that.  You get one pass from me.  One.”

He nodded.

“But you’d better go after that girl and apologize.  Because the way I heard it from Kid Win, you were the one who told everyone else to be extra nice to her, because she was taking it hard.  You convinced Shadow Stalker to play nice, and from what Kid Win said before class started, that was a pretty big deal.  Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know your team like you do, but I’d guess that if you don’t fix this, your team won’t forgive you for a long time.”

“Yeah,” he swallowed.  Was she using her power?  He was getting a bad vibe from her.  Like he was locked in a cage at the zoo with a murderous jungle cat.

She poked him in the chest with a finger.  “A real apology.  You own up to what you said and did, acknowledge that it wasn’t fair of you to say, and you promise to do better in the future.  That probably means you should cut Weld some slack, because Vista wants you to.”

“Okay.  Right, okay.”

She pushed his shoulder, making him stumble in the direction Vista had gone.  Easy to forget how strong she is.  “Now go.”

He ran.

Definitely don’t get the sense I’m forgiven, there.

He checked two empty rooms and made one nervous check of the women’s bathroom before he found Vista halfway down the stairwell at the rear of the building.  She had one leg up on a higher stair than the other, her hands clasped around her knee.  She turned her head partway, acknowledging that someone was there, then wiped at her eyes with the sleeve of her costume.

“I’m sorry,” he spoke to her back.

“You’re a jerk.”

“I am.  I’m the worst jerk.”

Vista twisted around to look up at him, “You said that in front of Glory Girl, too.  He was her boyfriend.”

“I know.  She said she understood and that it was okay, but I don’t know how true that is.  Before I figure that out and work out how to make it up to her, I want to make sure you’re okay.”

She hung her head.

It was a long time before she spoke.  “He was the reason I looked forward to coming here every day.”

He walked down the stairs and sat down next to her.  “Yeah.”

“I knew I didn’t have a chance with him.  He was way older, he was rich, handsome.  He was dating Glory Girl, or they were just getting over a breakup, or he was starting to patch things up with her for the millionth time.  There was never a good time to talk to him one on one, unless we were out on patrol together, and I dunno what I would have said if there had been a chance.”

“He liked you.  He was fond of you.”

Vista gave him a sidelong glare, “Are you lying to me?”

“No!  No.  I’m saying he actually enjoyed doing patrols with you.  Never had an unkind word to say about you-”

She interrupted, “He didn’t have an unkind word to say about anybody.”

“Not exactly true.  When Piggy caught on to the fact that Shadow Stalker was doing solo patrols every night, made us take turns going with her, he had a few things to say.  About both Piggy and Shadow Stalker.”

Vista smiled slightly.

“He enjoyed your company, Missy.  There were little signs, but I believe it.  When Triumph or Aegis assigned him a patrol shift with Kid Win, Browbeat or just about anyone else, it was ‘okay’, or ‘yes sir’.  But when it was with me or you, it was ‘great’ or he’d just smile really wide, like it had made his night.  It sounds dumb when I say it out loud-”

“No. I kind of noticed that too.  I thought it was wishful thinking.”

Clockblocker sighed, “He was a good guy, and it’s shhsss…ucky-”

“You can swear around me, Dennis.  I’m thirteen, not eight.”

He smiled a little behind his mask, feeling embarrassed.  “Okay.  Sorry.”

More seriously, he admitted, “It’s shitty of me to snap at you for doing what he would do.  Glory Girl said I should let the grudge toward Weld go, partially for you, and she’s right.  You’re right.  I was, am, angry.  At the pointlessness of what happened, what’s still happening out there.  I get frustrated and angry when I’m here, because I feel like I should be out on the streets.  I get pissed off when I’m out on patrol because I feel like I should be with my family… but when I’m with my family, I feel frustrated and helpless because I can’t do anything there…”

He stopped himself before he admitted the full extent of his difficulties back home.

“…I was taking it out on the new guy, when he probably doesn’t deserve it.”

Vista let her head rest on his arm.

“I miss the old Dennis.  The guy who picked a sorta rude codename and announced himself in front of the news so Piggy and the other people in charge couldn’t really make him change it.  Because it was funny.  Because he liked pushing the limits and because he saw this all as something fun.  The new Dennis is so angry.  Now I guess I get why.”

“Aren’t you?  Angry?  At everything that’s going on?  At the unfairness of what happened?”

She shook her head, which amounted to rubbing her head against his shoulder.  “Yeah.  But you can’t let it consume you.  If you really don’t like Weld, you don’t have to force yourself to get along with him.  But don’t stay like this.  Don’t stay angry.”

He nodded.  It wasn’t so easy, though.  Letting things go, relaxing, he couldn’t help but feel like he’d fall apart if he did.  He couldn’t get his hopes up about Panacea’s willingness to help his dad – and facing any of that head on, without a buffer of smouldering fury?  It might leave him unable to serve and protect the people who really needed it.  He felt his pulse quicken a step at the thought of it.

He hedged his answer, “I’ll work on it.  Sorry if that’s been bothering you.”

“It’s okay.  I’m tougher than I look.”  She bumped one fist against the armor that covered her chest.

“And I’m sorry, again, for saying what I did.  You’re good people, Missy.”

“Want to go back to class?” she asked.

“If you’re okay?”

She nodded.

When they returned, the Wards and Glory Girl were out in the hallway.  The PRT officers were rushing out of the room, pulling their helmets on.

“You’re back,” Weld informed them, “Just in time.  Class is cancelled.  We’ve got trouble.”

The scene was set up in the husk of a building.  Walls loomed on three sides, but there was no roof remaining.  The floor was uneven, composed of layers of broken boards, shattered drywall and chunks of concrete.

“There’s two more crime scenes like this?” Clockblocker asked, eyes wide.  He craned his neck upward to look above them.

“Yeah,” Weld spoke.

“It’s the middle of the day,” Kid Win spoke, “Broad daylight.”

Clockblocker looked at the overcast sky above.  Not quite daylight. And people weren’t around.  It was still ballsy, and more than a little scary.

On each of the three interior walls of the older building was a body, twenty feet above the ground.  Each had received a different kind of treatment.  To their left was a corpse that had been flayed, the gender no longer identifiable.  Directly opposite their group was the corpse of an obese woman, charred black.  Completing the scene was the body of what appeared to be a homeless man, or one of the people who’d been rendered homeless by the recent disaster, judging by the layers of clothing he wore.  His limbs had been severed at each joint, then reconnected so each was joined by a short, foot-long length of chain.  Nails placed through the chain kept him in position, head hanging, a macabre puppet with an overlong body.  The chains jangled and swung in the wind.

Occupying the same building as the corpses was a familiar group.  Trickster, Sundancer and Ballistic stood beneath the corpses.  A winged figure that might have been a gargoyle, demon or dragon was clutching to the sides of an empty window frame with three talons, the other reaching toward the homeless man.  Genesis.

“Pardon the cliche, but this isn’t what it looks like,” Trickster spoke.

“I believe you,” Weld spoke, “I’ve read your file, and this isn’t your M.O.”

“Excellent, excellent.  I commend you,” Trickster tipped his hat, “Then we’ll be on our way?”

“No.  But if you come into custody-”

“You’ll arrest us for any number of other criminal charges we’ve got waiting.  And you can’t promise that one of your superiors won’t try to stick us with the blame for this.”

Weld frowned.

“Let us go.  Whatever happened here, it deserves your full attention.  You should be trying to find and capture the real criminals.  This guy here was still alive when we arrived.”  Trickster pointed at the man with the chain limbs.

“Can’t do that.  You’re still suspects, regardless of how much this deviates from your usual methods.”

“A shame,” Trickster bowed.

In the blink of an eye, Weld disappeared, and Genesis loomed in his place, eight feet tall and nearly as broad across the shoulders, a body of pebble-like scales, heavy with muscle, a short tail and broad bat wings sprouting from her shoulders.  She spun to face the rest of the Wards as Weld fell from the window.

Ballistic turned on the fallen captain of the Wards, unloading a barrage of debris and rubble to keep the metal skinned boy off-balance and on the defensive.

Clockblocker lunged for Genesis, hand outstretched.  He was mere inches away when Genesis disappeared from in front of him.  Or, rather, Clockblocker had been moved somewhere else.  A lack of proper footing made him stumble, and he nearly collided with one of the dilapidated walls of the ruined building.

As he spun in place, catching a glimpse of Genesis exchanging blows with Glory Girl, he had his position swapped yet again.  He found himself once more with his back to the brawling pair.  One of them bumped into him, and he sprawled.  If only he’d been able to tell if it were Genesis or Glory Girl that bumped into him; had he known, he might have used his power, taken Genesis out of the fight.

Annoying.  He climbed to his feet, wary of more teleportation hijinks.

Kid Win wheeled on the spot to raise a square-nosed pistol and fire what looked like a brilliant blue flare at Trickster, but the teleporter swapped positions with him.  Kid Win ducked the moment he was teleported, but he still got grazed by his own shot, blue sparks showering off his armored costume, small arcs of electricity dancing briefly around the metal joins.  Sundancer created her flaming ball – small, but still far too bright to look at – and sent it after Kid Win.  The young hero scrambled for cover, dropping his gun in his hurry to get away from the superheated orb.  Flechette moved to shoot, then reconsidered, threw a handful of darts at Trickster instead.  The darts disappeared in midair, and splinters of wood and small stones dropped straight out of the air where they had been.

Really fucking annoying, Clockblocker revised his summation of the teleporter.

Shadow Stalker had positioned herself on the ragged top of the wall where the roof had crumbled away, high above the skirmish, cloak billowing.  She fired a shot at Ballistic and Sundancer, reloaded as Ballistic sent a piece of rubble flying through her shadowy form, then fired again.  The Travelers had body armor, so she wasn’t doing more than distracting them.  The needles of the tranquilizer darts wouldn’t pass through the durable armor or material.

“Red rover!” Vista shouted, “Go!”

Good girl.  Clockblocker dashed for Trickster, and the distance between them compressed to a matter of feet, the highest points in the uneven ground flattening to make running easier.

Trickster swapped him with Vista, placing him several feet back.  Ahead of him, he could see the girl where he’d just been, within a few feet of the teleporter.  Clockblocker found his footing, darted forward once more.  Again, Vista’s powers helped close the distance.  Kid Win, Flechette, and Vista joined him in charging the enemy, so that Clockblocker wouldn’t be set too far back if he was teleported to their locations.

Sundancer moved the orb in between them and Trickster, igniting a few of the pieces of wood that were exposed and above the water.  Vista responded by raising her hand to shrink it dramatically.  Weld ducked one of Ballistic’s attacks, then charged for the orb, striking it out of the air with one fist.  The blow dispersed it enough that Sundancer couldn’t draw it back together, and a wave of hot air washed over everyone present.

Weld, for his part, staggered back, his hand glowing white-hot.  He flexed his glowing hand, and it moved slowly, stiffly.  Even as far down as his elbow, the metal of his arm was an orange-red.

Clockblocker didn’t get a chance to see if Weld was okay.  He charged around his team leader, using the metal boy’s broader body to put himself in Trickster’s blind spot.  From this position, he tried to charge and tag the villain.

An instant before his hand could brush against Trickster, the villain was gone, and Weld was in front of him.  His hand touched the metal of Weld’s back.

He breathed a sigh of relief when Weld turned around.  Only the fact that he’d expected something along these lines had allowed him to turn his power off in time.  Spinning around, Clockblocker reached for the space Weld had just vacated, but Trickster was already swapping places with Glory Girl to place himself as far away from the thick of the fighting as he could get.

I can’t keep track of this guy.

Clockblocker looked around to survey the situation.  His group was sandwiched between the Travelers, now.  On one side, Sundancer and Ballistic crouched in the far corner of the building.  Trickster and Genesis stood on the other side, atop the rubble that spilled across the building’s entrance and onto the flooded street.

Genesis inhaled, chest expanding, and Weld was the first to react, stomping one foot hard into the rubble underfoot, using his foot to raise a large, ragged piece of plywood.  With his hands, he forced the large wooden board into a standing position, placing it between himself and Genesis.  Kid Win, Flechette and Vista wheeled on Ballistic and Sundancer.

Weld’s piece of plywood served to block the worst of whatever it was that Genesis exhaled.  From what Clockblocker could see around the plywood, it was a dark, gray-black vapor.  Wisps billowed around the edge of the board and drifted their way – it had a bitter smell and taste, like ashes mixed with something foul.  Even inhaling a trace of it through the air holes of his mask forced barking coughs from his lungs.  His teammates seemed to be in rougher shape, Vista falling to her hands and knees.  The changer’s exhalation hadn’t even reached them directly.

So, that’s what a changer nine brings to the tableDifferent forms, each with their own powers.

Weld staggered as Genesis lunged forward, and Clockblocker ducked low under Weld’s arm, planted a hand against the plywood.  He felt his power snap out to encompass the material, and he fixed it in place, cutting it off from the flow of time.

A second later, he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.  Weld, standing over him, gave him a quick smile and an offered hand.  He returned it with the briefest of nods and took Weld’s hand to stand straight.  Together, the pair of them stepped back and away, to see Genesis rising into the air with heavy flaps of her bat-like wings, inhaling to prepare another blast of the noxious smoke.

He felt oddly calm as his group squared off against the villains with some of the highest power ratings in Brockton Bay, beneath the grim display of the three hanging corpses.  He reached into the slot of the armor at his side and withdrew two sheaves of paper.  Moving his thumbs in one direction, he fanned out the papers, holding them like anyone else might hold a pair of knives.

He realized what it was, this calm.  Whatever else it was, this fight was a refuge from that feeling that had plagued him since the fight with Leviathan ended.  The feeling that he was always in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, in the face of a city in crisis and a dying father.  This, right here, was where he was needed. 

This is what I’m here for.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Sentinel 9.2

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Flechette spoke, “You’re a hard person to fin-”

Shadow Stalker, transparent and wispy, whirled on the spot, not even pausing as she fired her crossbows.  The first bolt went wide.  Flechette caught the second out of the air, staggered back a step as she was caught off balance.  Her right foot skidded to the edge of the rooftop.

“What the hell!?”

Shadow Stalker rose from a crouch, becoming opaque in the process, “Oh.  You shouldn’t sneak up on people when they’re on patrol.”

WhatI nearly get shot and she blames me?

“You nearly killed me!”

“It’s a tranquilizer shot, and you have the fire escape behind you.”

Flechette turned to see Shadow Stalker was right about the fire escape.  The bolt in her hand had a glass shaft, filled with fluid, a three-pronged head with a wider cross-shaped flare at the base of it to prevent it from stabbing too deep.  Tinker made?  “Geez.  You shaved a year off my life, doing that.”

“Sorry.  A little twitchy.  Good to see you,”  Shadow Stalker crossed the roof, offered a hand.  Flechette shook it.

“I suppose being twitchy is excusable,” Flechette excused Shadow Stalker, looking out beyond the rooftop to the dark streets.  Some of the buildings looked ready to fall over, and the main street below the pair had a two-foot crack running down the middle.  Water covered everything at the ground level, a half-foot deep.  “And the apology is accepted.”

“So.  You joining the team?”

“No.  Temporary stay, until you guys fill out your ranks again.  Maybe a few weeks, maybe as much as a month or two.  Weld told me you were out on patrol, that you might need backup.”

“I don’t do backup, and I don’t do the team thing unless someone makes me, but I’m willing to hang with another crossbow aficionado.  Is that the right word?  Aficionado?”

Flechette smiled, “It is.  The brown haired guy at the computer told me you’d be around here.  Took me almost two hours to spot you, though I did get sidetracked by some kids taking clothing from a broken display window.  We’ll patrol?”

“Sure,” Shadow Stalker agreed, lowering her eyes to her crossbows as she picked bolts out of one of the three cartridges mounted on her forearm and loaded them into her crossbows.  “You look like a rooftop type.  Fly?  Glide?  Grappling hook?”

“Grappling hook,” she patted her weapon, touched the chain that ran along her arm to the automatic-firing crossbow, her arbalest.

“If you can’t keep up, don’t worry about it.  Keep moving in a straight line, I’m mostly untouchable, hard to spot, so I’ll scout ahead for trouble, double back every minute or so to check on you.”

“Got it.”

Shadow Stalker swept her cloak over one shoulder, simultaneously shifting into her shadow state.  She turned and leaped twenty feet to the side of a neighboring building.  Grabbing a windowsill, she vaulted herself another fifteen or so feet straight up the face of the building, caught another windowsill, and then heaved herself up once more to reach the rooftop.  Her cloak billowed out around her, and Flechette saw how Shadow Stalker’s costume clung to her body.  One of the surprisingly few people who could wear a skintight costume without armor pads or features to mask minor physical imperfections and emphasize or suggest certain features.

When Shadow Stalker had disappeared from view, Flechette remembered she was supposed to follow.  She cocked her arbalest, flipped a switch beneath the trigger while sending a burst of her power through her weapon to connect the chain to the ammunition, and then fired a needle with an attached chain to the edge of the rooftop.

The needle bit deep, and the chain went taut.  A second later, she was reeling in.  The pull of the chain wasn’t quite enough to carry her straight to the rooftop, but the pull of the chain coupled with her ability to plant her cleats into the face of the building and run up the building face let her reach the edge of the roof.  A bit of momentum, one hand and her cleats gave her what she needed to hop over the roof’s edge.

Running across the rooftop, she used her index finger to flip the switch, severing the chain, then reconnected the chain to the next piece of ammunition as her free hand loaded it into place.  It took her a second to spot the vague blur that was Shadow Stalker, almost three buildings ahead of her.  The girl was practically gliding as she fell, moving more horizontally than vertically.

It was a drop to the next rooftop, Flechette noted.  She touched the front end of the needle that was mounted in her arbalest, used her power on it.

Capes with the ‘breaker’ classification were generally those who had some ability to ‘break’ the natural laws of the universe as far as those laws applied to them.  Shadow Stalker was one.  Scion was apparently another.  There were others who could slow or stop time in relation to themselves, change their effective orientation in respect to gravity or make themselves effectively larger without the exponentially increasing the stresses that the increased size and mass would normally place on their body.  Almost always, such powers came with some physiological changes that let them manage despite the altered environment they were effectively operating in, allowing them to breathe and walk at the very least.

Flechette wasn’t a breaker, though her power came close.  Technically, she was a striker, a cape with the ability to apply some effect by touch or at point-blank range.  The striker classification could include certain breaker effects as they were applied to things other than the cape themselves, but not always.  Other strikers included those who used energy weapons, those who had certain kinds of superstrength that weren’t accompanied by durability and those with pyrokinesis or such that didn’t extend more than a foot around them.  The way she used her ability, coupled with the intuitive understanding of angles, trajectories and timing she got from her secondary powers, gave her a low rating as a ‘blaster’.  A cape with a ranged attack.

She infused the three-foot length of sharpened metal that was mounted in her arbalest with her power.  The more power there was in it, the less it was affected by the natural laws of the universe.  Focusing more power into an object meant gravity, air resistance and general physics held less and less sway over it.  She could tune it, make the effect longer lived, shorter lived or bias the effects to allow for more of one element or less of another.

She could do other things, but the primary benefit, the easiest thing to do, was making her ammunition punch through anything.  It would glue itself in place on impact, if she had the effect wear off at the right time, and she was very good at timing things.  She could charge the metal of her cleats so they bit into any surface, and though it was too slow to be used defensively unless her foe telegraphed their attacks, she could make her costume frictionless.

She fired the needle through the corner of the roof just in front of her, and it passed through without resistance.  It continued on to strike the rooftop below and in front of her, nestling in deep as the effect wore off, bonding on a molecular level to the material around it.  The chain stretched down at a fifty degree angle, taut.

Flechette stepped forward, onto the chain.  The space between the spikes of her cleats made for a groove the chain could run through.  She slid down, one foot behind the other, arbalest held behind her with the chain reeling out, a safety measure in the event she slipped or was pushed off, with the added advantage that it allowed her to control the speed of her descent.

When she was close to the rooftop below, she cut the chain, let herself drop down.  She was running the second her feet met the surface, using the momentum from her slide.

It was tiring, constantly running, but she didn’t want to look bad in front of Shadow Stalker.  She was going to spend weeks with this team, and Shadow Stalker was the only other girl present that was close to her own age.  Doing double shifts of patrols, eating, showering, relaxing with her teammates, day in and day out, it would drain the life out of her if she had no friends to do it with, if she had no conversation and camaraderie.

At least this wasn’t so different from the exercise she got on her nightly patrol back in New York.  The problem was that this city was unfamiliar ground.  The buildings didn’t match together well, the skyline was jarring, didn’t flow.  Back home, traveling from rooftop to rooftop wasn’t much harder than running, with the use of her grappling hook to move her every minute or two.  Here, it was a jerky, stilted exercise, slow, awkward, demanding use of the grappling hook for nearly every building.

It wasn’t something she did often, but after too many steep ascents followed by steep descents, she bridged a gap to a more distant building with her chain, forming a horizontal tightrope, and ran along it.

Shadow Stalker was waiting for her when she got to the other end.  She did her best not to pant for breath.

“Don’t you run out of chain?”

Flechette turned, reached over her shoulder to tap her back. “Tinker teammate back home specializes in replication and cloning.  Small pack back here consumes energy from a small fusion battery to create a steady supply.  I’ve also got a kit back at the base that makes me a fresh stock of bolts.”

“I could use one of those.”

“Why’d you stop?  You see something?”

“Come.”

Shadow Stalker led Flechette to the edge of the roof.  Looking down, they could see a group of men in a loose half-circle around a middle-aged woman.  The woman was backing away from the men, who were gradually closing in.

“Why haven’t you done anything yet?!”  Flechette gasped.

“These things go smoother if the culprits are clearly committing a crime when you step in-”

A man grabbed the woman’s wrist, and she pulled back, struggled.  She screamed, attacked the man, only to get punched and knocked back on her ass, landing in the shallow water.

“-And there we go.”  Shadow Stalker leaped from the rooftop, falling at a normal speed, slowing to an almost gentle floating descent when she was partway down.

You only need to wait like that if you’re going to be violent, Flechette thought to herself.  Why?  When she has the tranquilizer bolts?

And Shadow Stalker had neglected to inform command.  Flechette reached for her ear, where an earbud was nestled in the canal. She squeezed it twice.  “Console, woman under attack by twelve or so ordinaries.  Shadow Stalker and Flechette stepping in.”

“Acknowledged,” a voice in her ear responded, “Good luck.”

She fired a bolt into the corner of the rooftop, then jumped, rappelling down.

Shadow Stalker was already engaged by the time Flechette arrived at the fight.  In a matter of heartbeats, Shadow Stalker answered Flechette’s unspoken questions.

The other heroine didn’t flinch as one of the men swung a baseball bat at her – the weapon passed harmlessly through her head.  In response, she stepped back, materialized from her shadow state, raised a crossbow and shot him in the side of the neck.  A fraction of a second after the glass arrow stuck in her target’s neck, Shadow Stalker stepped forward again, driving her armored elbow up at an angle at the spot where the bolt had struck home.  Glass shattered and the combination needle-arrowhead was violently dislodged.  The man went tumbled with a splash, going limp before he hit the water.  The side of his neck and the corner of his jaw were a bloody mess of cuts and embedded broken glass.

Shadow Stalker wheeled around, then simultaneously slammed the top of her right crossbow into her left forearm and her left crossbow into her right arm.  There was a barely audible click as cartridges loaded into the top of each crossbow.  She extended her arms to fire at the two of the men closest to the woman.  They dropped on their backs in the water, splashing.

Realizing what they were up against, the group began to scatter.  Flechette raised her arbalest, shot one bolt so it struck a wall just in front of one man’s throat.  Still running, he ran headlong into it, clotheslined himself, and fell over, gasping and gurgling.

She spared a glance to double check he wasn’t in a position to drown, which very nearly cost her.  One of the thugs turned to attack her, drawing a gun, but she had a bolt loaded and fired off before he could aim it, spearing through the gun’s barrel and out the back, to strike a wall.  She loaded another bolt even as she was already pulling the trigger to fire it, so it was sent out an eye-blink after it was in place.  The shaft of metal struck the thug through the crotch of his sagging jeans, pinning them to the wall he was backing up to.  He didn’t scream, so he clearly wasn’t well endowed enough to get hit anywhere important.  Flechette wasn’t exactly an expert -or even a novice- in that sort of thing, but she was ninety-nine percent sure that men didn’t dangle nearly to their knees.

Made lightweight by her power, Shadow Stalker leaped to the nearest wall, then vaulted herself off, careening directly toward three of the retreating men.  As she landed atop the one in the front, she dropped out of her shadow form, returning to her normal weight.  Planting her feet on his shoulder blades, she combined the force of her weight and her momentum with a downward kick of both feet, driving him into the water, hard.  She went shadowy a half second later, becoming almost invisible in the gloom of the empty lot, effortlessly reorienting her now lightweight body to land on her feet.

Both of the men behind Shadow Stalker attacked her, one swiping a knife at her, the other kicking for the small of her back.  Smoky, dark flickers appeared where limbs and weapons passed through her.

Almost casually, she holstered her crossbows, then straightened up.  A flurry of other attacks passed through her.

One man hesitated, seeing the futility of what they were doing, and Shadow Stalker took the opportunity to drop the shadow state.  She leaned out of the way of one desperate punch from the other man, then grabbed him.  She seized him by the shirt-front, pulled him forward with a hard tug on his collar and a counterclockwise turn of her body, then brought her right knee into his ribs.  He fell with a splash.

Metal kneepad, Flechette noted.  That’s going to hurt.

The other man attacked, but Shadow Stalker went shadowy just long enough for his knife to pass through her, then slammed her metal mask into his face.

While he swayed back, stunned, blood streaming from his nose, she reached out and grabbed him by the lower jaw, her fingers digging into the bottom of his mouth.  Instinctively, desperately, he bit down, hard, but the construction of the girl’s gauntlets was good enough to safeguard her fingers.  She used her grip to pull him to one side as she’d just done with his compatriot, helped by a swift kick to the side of one leg.  Rather than use her knee to deliver the telling blow, she brought the heel of her free hand against the gap between the man’s skull and his jaw.  He screamed, crumpled toward the ground, his hands moving to where the strike had hit.

Shadow Stalker waited a moment before letting go, forcing him to twist and squeal in agony before she let him finish collapsing.

After watching him a moment, perhaps to be sure he wouldn’t retaliate, Shadow Stalker glanced at Flechette.  “Your man there is getting loose.”

Flechette had been caught up in the spectacle of watching Shadow Stalker fight.  A kind of horrified fascination.  She saw the thug she’d shot in the crotch, on his back in the water, his pants still fixed to the wall.  He was struggling to work his legs out of the jeans.  She loaded a shot and fired a bolt just beneath his armpit, nailing his sweatshirt to the ground.  Another just above his opposite shoulder and behind his neck secured him.

Shadow Stalker was chasing one of the stragglers.  Going shadow-light, she closed the distance in two long paces, leaving ripples and small disturbances in the foot-deep water, rather than splashes.  As she reached the man’s side, she dropped the shadow state, gripped his ear and used one leg to trip him.  With the grip his ear afforded her, she thrust him face first into the ground with enough force that he couldn’t absorb the impact with his arms.  Water sprayed around them in the wake of the hit.

Flechette reached into her belt and withdrew a handful of darts, each nine inches long.  She channeled her power into each, and then flung them at the feet of the two remaining thugs, catching the edges of their shoes.  Their shoes fixed firmly to the ground and they fell awkwardly.  Two tranquilizer bolts appeared in the rear end of one and the upper thigh of the other.  Shadow Stalker.

Which finished the fight.  None of the men were left in any state to run.

Flechette palmed one of her throwing darts, glanced at it.  She’d been with the Wards a year before she had been given the arbalest and the chain reel.  Her darts had been her weapon of choice for a long time, alongside a rapier she’d eventually retired after too many fights using it had turned out badly.  She hadn’t had the heart to change her codename, even if it didn’t quite apply anymore.  Maybe when she graduated to the Protectorate.

“Hey,” Shadow Stalker called out, disturbing her from her thoughts.  “Here!”

Tired, she thought, mind’s wandering.

Flechette caught the device Shadow Stalker threw to her.  Investigation revealed it to be a small, thin, round device with a single button on top.  “Haven’t seen one of these since training.”

“Times like this call for ’em.  City wants us on patrol, not sitting around with our thumbs up our asses, waiting for the cops to cart these fuckers off,” Shadow Stalker kicked one man in the side, so he flopped over onto his back, no longer face down in the water.  He grunted.

Flechette winced.  That girl is a little too comfortable with violence for my tastes.

While Shadow Stalker ensured that the man with the cuts on his neck wasn’t bleeding out, Flechette  loaded another bolt into her arbalest and fired it into a spot on the wall, two floors up.

She walked briskly to the two men that had just been darted.  She bent down and used her left hand to wind the coil of the restraint device around his left foot, then did the same for the next man’s right foot.

She tossed the restraint device over the bolt she’d embedded in the wall, a metal thread trailing behind it.  She caught it as it fell, then connected it back to the cord, forming a loose loop that encircled the bolt in the wall.  She pressed the button, and the cord retracted, pulled tight around the pole, then continued retracting.  The two thugs were pulled off the ground, so that each hung from the wall by one ankle.

The device would signal nearby police and PRT officers and direct them here.  They’d use their own equipment to make the restraint device lower the men so the thugs could be brought into custody.  The cord was difficult to cut with conventional knives and saws, and those caught wouldn’t want to cut it either, given how they faced a long drop face first onto pavement.  Any buddies of theirs would have a hell of a time getting to them and cutting them free, as well.

She walked over to the man she’d clotheslined, who still hadn’t finished gasping, nor had he collected himself enough to run.  She grabbed his wrist and forced it behind his back.

As she hauled him to his feet, a collision made her stagger back.  It hadn’t been directed at her.  No, it was the man she held that slumped, almost insensate.  He hung his head, a trail of blood dribbling from his lip.

Seeing a movement just outside her blind spot, opposite the man, Flechette pushed her captive down and away.  She had to evade the weapon as it swung towards her head.

It was the middle-aged woman that the men had been attacking.  She held a metal trash can lid in two hands.  Oblivious to Flechette, she swung the lid down at the man’s head.

“Hey!” Flechette shouted, “Stop!”

She reached out to grab for the lid, but a hand on her wrist stopped her.

“Let her,” Shadow Stalker spoke.

The woman kicked the man in the ribs, hard, then struck him with the flat of the metal lid.

“You fuckers!” the woman screamed.

Stunned, Flechette spoke to Shadow Stalker, “The hell?  He’s not in a position to defend himself!”

“Doesn’t deserve to.”

“She’s going to kill him!”

“Better that we give her another few swings than render her powerless for the second time tonight,” Shadow Stalker spoke.  “Or she won’t get over it for a long time.  We’ll stop her before she goes too far.”

“No, this isn’t right.” Flechette pulled her arm free of Shadow Stalker’s grasp, then grabbed the woman’s wrist, stopping her as the lid was brought back behind her head.  Not entirely to the woman, she spoke, “You’re better than this.  You have to be.”

The woman resisted, tried to pull free to make another swing.  When Flechette maintained her grip, the woman used her free hand to throw the lid down on top of the man.

“Stop,” Flechette spoke.  As the woman struggled, she turned to bark a command to Shadow Stalker, “Help!”

“I’m on her side, to be honest,” Shadow Stalker didn’t move.

“So am I,” Flechette grunted as the woman shifted her weight towards her, knocking her off balance.  “Which means stopping her from doing anything she’ll regret!”

“Let me go!” the woman shouted at her, “Fuckers like this hurt my daughter!”

“Is she here?  Your daughter?”  Flechette asked.

“She’s home, it- it happened last week!  Let me at him!  Fuckers!”

“Stop attacking him and I will!”

The woman didn’t have a response, beyond continued struggles.  Though Flechette kept to an exercise regimen, spent four nights a week in the gym, she was still only seventeen, and the woman had a good fifty or more pounds of weight advantage.  The woman pulled free and staggered back, gave her an angry look.

When the lady stepped forward, toward the fallen, bloodied man, Flechette stepped in her way.  The woman didn’t back off, so Flechette raised her arbalest a fraction.

That was apparently enough.  The woman scowled further, then turned and fled the scene, half-running, half-limping.

“Thanks for the backup,” Flechette spat the words to Shadow Stalker.

“Told you, I don’t do the backup thing,” Shadow Stalker bent over the unconscious man, turning his head to investigate his injuries.  “He’ll live.  Him and his buddies deserve what they got.”

“That’s not your call to make.”

“Sure it is,” Shadow Stalker retrieved another restraint device and quickly strung the man up beneath a metal frame meant for an air conditioning unit.  “Times like this, we’re cop, judge, jury and if it really comes down to it, executioner.  We’re the ones with the power.”

“No.  That’s wrong.”

“Suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree,” Shadow Stalker turned her back, preparing another restraint device.

Flechette huffed, angry.  She didn’t want to get into a shouting match, wasn’t sure what to say to convince the girl.  “You can finish your patrol alone.”

“Whatever,” Shadow Stalker replied without looking back, “If you want to be like that.  I’m only on the team because I have to be, so you’re doing me a favor.  Prefer to fly solo.”

Three strikes, Flechette thought, as she strode away.  Nearly being shot for saying hello, the way Shadow Stalker had delayed helping the woman, and now this.

She’d give the other girl the benefit of a doubt.  Maybe Shadow Stalker had some unresolved issues, maybe it had been a rough week.  But for now, she needed to calm down and wait long enough to think more objectively about what had happened.  Then she’d decide whether to deal or to tell her new team leader.

Fuck.  She felt profoundly disappointed.  She wanted to like the other heroine, but this was too much.

She had one other thing she had wanted to do tonight, before she finished her patrol, went back, showered, ate and unpacked.

She squeezed the bud in her ear twice, “Console?”

A brief pause, then a voice in her ear, “Kid Win on the console.  Hi, Flechette.  Deal with those guys okay?”

“Guys are dealt with but… I’m going to do the rest of my night’s patrol alone.”

“Sorry.  I should’ve warned you.  Tends to be easier to work around her.”

So she’s always like that.

“This is unfamiliar territory for me. I might need you to brief me if I run into a cape, so I know what I’m potentially running into.”

“Of course, I’m not going anywhere.”

“And on that subject, I remember meeting someone when I was in town for the attack.  What can you tell me about the cape with the stuffed animals?  Pariah, par-”

“Parian,” Kid Win replied.  “A parian doll was a kind of doll about a hundred and fifty years ago.  Though Parian’s costume is actually closer to a more classical Victorian style porcelain doll, from the same era.”

“Oh.”  That was random.  What kind of guy knew that much about dolls?

He went on, “She’s a rogue.  Fashion student with the costume and stuffed animals as a gimmick to help her build for a professional reputation and stand out.  Tentative rating of Master-6, but we haven’t really seen her fight, outside of the Leviathan encounter.”

“Student.  So she’ll be near a college?”

“College is gone.  Kaput.  Um, let me see.  Last we heard, she was situated between the spot where the college was and the lake downtown.  If I remember right, there’s going to be a fairly thin strip of places there that are intact enough to live in.  Vista ran into her the other night, but she’s asleep right now and we’re behind on paperwork so…”

“So you don’t know exactly what happened, and I’d be going in blind.  She’s harmless though?  This Parian?”

“Nobody’s harmless at a time like this, Flechette,” Kid Win replied.

“Right.”  Flechette thought of the middle-aged woman beating her attacker bloody.

“Listen, easiest way to get to that area, you’ll find the lake to the northwest, walk the perimeter of it to reach the north end.  The area she could be staying at should only be a block or two wide.  If she’s even awake.  I’ve got Clockblocker buzzing in, probably to check in for the night and give me the cliff notes on his nightly patrol, so I’m going silent until you need me, k?”

“Sure.”

Flechette gauged the direction of the ocean, deemed that east, and then headed northwest as Kid Win had suggested.  She traveled at ground level, wading through the water, to make faster progress.  Nothing to prove, now that she had stopped patrolling with Shadow Stalker.

It didn’t take long to find the ‘lake’ Leviathan had made in the downtown area.  Given that the streets were flooded with water anyways, the crater itself was distinguishable only by the barrier around it, and a dark shadow beneath the water where there was nothing beneath to reflect light.  Hulks of fallen buildings sat in the center of the water.  The orange light of a fire on the top floor of one of the buildings suggested that someone had swum to one of the buildings and was staying there.  Maybe one of the safer places to be.

The crater was surrounded by orange striped barriers with flashing lights and portable chain link fences that were chained together.   The fencing formed a solid barrier around the hole.  She walked with the fence to her left, which roughly halved the area she had to keep an eye on, in case of approaching trouble.  Her right index finger was just below the trigger of her arbalest, and her left hand clutched a handful of darts.

The massive sinkhole Leviathan had made was roughly circular, but it was large enough that she couldn’t say for sure when she had turned and started moving more west than north.

Fresh graffiti stained buildings, some warning people to stay away, others were the crude pictographs of hobo signs.  One neighborhood had used the debris of fallen buildings to form makeshift barricades in alleys and in front of doorways.  There wasn’t much intact housing here – the sinkhole sat to her left, and two blocks to her right, from what she could make out in the moonlight, the buildings were too damaged to serve as living accommodations.

At one intersection there were two parallel, vertical lines spray painted in yellow on opposite walls.  Traffic cones, some broken, an orange striped barrier and the remains of one yellow raincoat sat in the water, much of it weighed down by rubble.  Together, the organized debris formed a brightly colored line joining the marks that had been spray painted on the wall.

She stepped over the line, and immediately felt a resistance.  It took her a second to figure out what it was – a thread caught the moonlight.

There was a muffled splashing sound, and a twelve-foot tall gorilla leaped from the nearest rooftop to land directly in front of her.  It swung its arms wildly in front of it, missing her, then slammed both knuckles down in the water, crushing one side of the orange striped barrier.  Flechette raised her arbalest to shoot, then stopped.

It wasn’t real.  Damp cloth, stitched together.  And it was blind.  It wasn’t acting as though it could see her.

She dropped the arbalest, backed over the line, and then waited.

Parian arrived at a run, feet splashing in the water.  She spotted Flechette, and the gorilla moved to place itself between the two of them.

Her creations can only see what she seesThey’re puppets.

“Stay back,” Parian warned.  She peeked out from behind the gorilla.  Her mask, a doll’s face, was smudged, and a crack ran from the corner of one eye to the ear.  She wore a frock, different than the one she had worn for the Leviathan fight, but it was wet, dirty, and some of the lace had torn.  There was a wood chip in the damp golden curls that were otherwise too perfectly coiled to be real hair

“I’m staying back,” Flechette assured the girl.  “Remember me?”

“Yes.  You talked to me before the fight, pulled me away from that horrible little girl.”

“Yeah,” Flechette smiled, shrugging.  She stepped forward.

“Back!”  Parian called out.  The Gorilla slammed its knuckles against the ground again, then lurched forward, one fist raising as if to deliver a massive punch.

Flechette obeyed, backing up another two steps, hands raised.  The gorilla’s fist stayed where it was.

“I’m a hero.  Member of the Wards.  I’m in town for a little while.”

“Doesn’t matter.  I made a deal.  Me, my friends and my family get a place to stay here, a fair share of the food and water.  In exchange, I keep people from entering.”

“I’m a hero,” Flechette stressed the word.  “I’m not going to cause trouble.”

“I don’t know you’re telling the truth.  Nothing saying you couldn’t be lying.”

“I have ID.”

Parian shook her head.  “It doesn’t matter anyways.”

The frocked rogue climbed up to stand on top of the gorilla’s shoulders.  She added, “I made a deal.  I’m keeping to it.  One hundred percent neutrality.  You trespass, I fight you.”

And I’d almost definitely win, Flechette thought. You may even know that, but you’d fight me anyways.

“Okay,” Flechette replied, trying to sound reassuring, “I won’t step over the line.  I heard you were around here, you’re one of the only recognizable faces for me here, I thought I’d stop by, see how you were doing.”

“Coping,” Parian answered.

“Good, good,” Flechette sheathed her arbalest, hoping the rogue would feel safer.  “Look, I’m here if you need anything.  If people make trouble and you’re not strong enough to protect that neighborhood there, or if you need resources that you couldn’t get otherwise, like names or medical services, call me.  Can I give you my card?”

The gorilla lowered his raised fist, reached forward with palm upturned, and Flechette fished in her belt for her cards.  Slightly damp, but readable.  She placed it in the center of a sopping wet hand crafted out of black denim.  The gorilla’s palm was surprisingly firm.  Hard.  Its shape was a little too humanlike, in comparison to a real gorilla, maybe.  Not that it mattered.

“Okay,” Parian spoke, as the gorilla handed her the card.  Her voice was a little softer.  “Phone lines are down, but cell phones work around here.”

“You guys need anything here?  I don’t know what the situation is with supplies, just got into the city a few hours ago.  Don’t know how that stuff is being distributed, but I could see about making sure you guys have something.”

Parian sat down cross-legged on the gorilla’s shoulders.  “Yeah.  We’re low on fresh water.  This stuff we’re wading in has too much salt content, and you couldn’t even boil it clean if you wanted to, I don’t think.”

“Okay.  Fresh water.”

The doll girl shifted her weight to put the card in the front pocket of her lacy apron, fumbled with it.  Flechette spotted a tremor as the girl put the card away and moved to clasp her hands in her lap.

She’s shaking.

“Hey?” Flechette asked.

“What?”

“Seriously, are you okay?  You holding up?”

Parian turned, looked behind her, as if checking anyone was listening.

“I hate fighting.  Hate confrontation.  Even this, being here, having just thought I might have to fight you, fight anyone, it makes me feel edgy.  My teeth are chattering and I’m not even cold.”

“You faced down Leviathan.  You did better than a lot of people.”

“Do you know how long it took me to get my head together?  To actually step up and help?”

“But you did.  You stepped up.  Give yourself credit.  You’re strong.”

“I want this to be over.  I’m so, so scared that someone’s going to come and try to loot this place and I won’t be able to do anything.”

“You’ve got my card.  I can’t promise I’ll arrive immediately, but I’ll be staying at the Wards headquarters, which isn’t too far.”

Parian nodded.  Quietly, she spoke, “That helps a lot.  More than you know.”

“And I can come by on my patrols, if you want.  Check everything is okay, give you an update on what I can do about supplies.”

Parian hesitated, “Please do.  If you pluck the strings twice, I’ll know it’s you.  I’m using my telekinesis on the strings, I’ll feel it.”

“Deal.  I’m Flechette, by the way, in case you didn’t know.”

“Oh.  Um.  I didn’t.  My name’s Sab-” Parian stopped, made a barely audible groan.

“It’s okay,” Flechette suppressed the urge to smile.  Sabrina?  Maybe.  Sable?  No, the b pronunciation was different.

“I’m an idiot,”  Parian spoke.

Flechette paused, then removed her visor.  “Lily.”

I need people I can trust, she tried to convince herself, even as she knew she had other reasons.  Stuff like this could get her in serious trouble with the Wards.

Parian hesitated, then reached up and removed her mask.  Though her clothing style was western, her wig all blonde curls, her face was dark, middle eastern.  There were bands of metal extending from the edges of her face to the middle of her cheekbones, her chin and her forehead.  Mounts to keep her mask in position?  She had full lips and large, dark eyes. “Sabah.”

Cute, the thought struck Flechette.  Funny to think she’s older than me.

“Nice to meet you, Sabah.”

“I’m still not letting you over the line,” Sabah warned.  She looked so small, up on the gorilla’s broad shoulders, the threat held little gravity.  Maybe, Flechette considered, it was intended more for Sabah than for her.

“Okay,” Flechette donned her visor once more, “But maybe you want to walk with me?  Do a patrol of the perimeter of your territory?  I’ll stay on this side.”

Sabah put her mask back on, and for a second, Flechette thought she would say no.

“Okay.  Thank you.”  Parian dropped her legs down to either side of the gorilla’s neck as it moved forward. To stay decent, the girl pressed her hands down on the lap of her dress, leaning forward a little.  It was a little thing, that bashful modesty, but Flechette felt as much of a rush watching that as she did running across her chain/tightrope with a five-story drop below her.

She didn’t let it show.  Instead, she smiled and started walking, hands clasped behind her back, darts clasped in one hand in case of trouble or ambush.  The gorilla crossed the yellow line and sort of half-ran, half-loped to catch up, move beside her.  It slowed to a plodding, gentle walk

Flechette was secretly relieved.  She knew she’d manage for the duration of her stay, now.  She’d made a connection, even if it wasn’t with someone on her team.  She wasn’t in this alone.

“So, you’re a fashion student?” she asked.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Sentinel 9.1

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

It was seven-thirty in the evening in a medium sized airport.  Weren’t there supposed to be people?

There had been staff, for sure.  The odd staff member to greet him as he got off the plane, another to see him past the gates.  Still, the terminals were empty, there were no crowds, the shops and restaurants were all closed.  Only half the lights were on.  For the first time, he was wondering if he was getting in over his head.

At least there were no people making the same old jokes about the metal detectors.

Baggage claim had three carousels, which should have been in operation, delivering a regular supply of people’s luggage onto the conveyor belts, crowds gathered around them in anticipation.  Instead, there was a single man in uniform with three large bags already piled onto a cart.

“I can take my bags, I’m stronger than I look.”

“It’s alright, son,” the man replied, “It’s good to have something to do that isn’t cleaning up.”

Son.  That bothered him more than he cared to admit.  Not that he had any ideas about his own ethnicity, but it was vaguely condescending.  A reminder that people didn’t know how to act around him.

“Alright,” he conceded, “Where are we headed?”

The man gestured toward a set of double doors, then gripped the handle of the cart to push it in that same direction.

Stainless steel handles on the doors.  He put his hands on the painted surface instead, pushed them open, and then held one of the doors open for the cart.  He was distracted enough that he almost didn’t notice the group waiting for him.

The group consisted of a squad of PRT officers with their regular assortment of nonlethal weaponry and a large woman with a bleached blonde bob.

“Weld, I’m glad you made it,” she managed to say the words without a trace of humor or smile on her face.  She extended a hand.

He glanced quickly at her hand, checking there were no rings, then shook it.  “Thank you, ma’am.  Director Piggot, I’m assuming?”

“You assume correctly.  Shall we?”

He nodded.

As they fell into step, he asked, “Where is everyone?”

“This airport was attacked by one of the local villain groups just three days ago.  The front lobby and ticket claim were ransacked, and the airport has shut down for the time being, with only special cases such as yourself coming or going.”

“I take it things are bad?”

“Yes.  We have seen this type of situation before, if not to this extreme.  Too many citizens here had been living paycheck to paycheck or were unemployed.  There was a great deal of latent frustration and unhappiness with the status quo.  A powder keg needing only a spark to set it off.”

Weld nodded, “And the arrival of an Endbringer is a bit more than a spark.  I see.  I know the Endbringers tend to target areas where they know they can do the most damage.  You think Leviathan did it on purpose?  Attacked this city because he knew this would happen?”

“If someone raised the idea, I wouldn’t dismiss it.  But our focus should be on what we do in the here and now.  Are you ready to take command of the local Wards?”

“I’m ready to try.”

“Good.  The team here is smaller than your old team in Boston.  It currently consists of Clockblocker, Vista, Kid Win and Shadow Stalker.  We had two members die in the attack, and a third left with his family when they evacuated.”

PRT uniforms opened the doors, and he followed the Director onto a helipad, followed shortly after by the other PRT uniforms and man with his luggage.  A black helicopter with the PRT logo on the sides sat there, propeller already whirring in preparation for takeoff.

The Director took the hand of a uniform inside the helicopter, stepping inside, and Weld followed her up, refusing a helping hand.  The helicopter shifted slightly with the addition of his six hundred pounds of weight.

When the door shut, cutting off the worst of the noise, he took the offered headphones and put them on.  When he spoke, his voice came through the headphones crystal clear, without a trace of the ambient noise of the helicopter, “So there’s only five of us?”

“There will be more.  We’ve got a lead on a young man who could be joining as a new member, assuming we can get close enough to him to make the offer.  I trust you know your classifications?”

“I do,” Weld nodded.  He’d memorized it as a rhyme, as suggested by his old boss.  Maybe that had been the intention from the start:

Mover, Shaker,
Brute and Breaker.

Master, Tinker,
Blaster and Thinker,

Striker, Changer,
Trump and Stranger.

He was classified as a brute and changer, classifications meant for the unnaturally tough and strong and for those who could change their shape to some extent, respectively.  He never liked the word brute being applied to him, even though he was aware that the labels had originally been intended for the PRT teams to identify and label villains, specifically.  It was only later that they had been extended to identifying the heroes as well.

“Right.  This potential recruit is tentatively marked down as a Tinker/Mover.  It isn’t unusual for powers to emerge in the wake of an event as serious as this.  For this reason, we keep careful track of things to see if we cannot detect any new parahumans.  This young man has been observed in the south end, moving at over a hundred miles an hour with the assistance of a mechanical suit.  His inclusion on a local team would help fill gaps left by the death of Velocity, a local Protectorate member, and Armsmaster’s retirement.”

Weld nodded.

“Others may make themselves known, and we will approach each of them in turn.  To help fill the gap in the meantime, Flechette is arriving from New York.”

Weld chuckled, just under his breath.

“Something amusing?”

He was surprised that she had heard or noticed the laugh.  “No, it’s just that we know each other.  Our teams are -were- friendly rivals, kind of.  We’d meet two or three times a year and compete, just to spar and practice our skills against less familiar opponents.  We’d joke around about which team was better, give each other a hard time.”

“I certainly hope this ‘rivalry’ isn’t going to hamper your ability to lead this team and work with her.”  There was no humor in her tone.  Just the opposite.

“Um, no, ma’am,” he replied, chastened.  The helicopter lifted into the air.  A glance out the window showed the sprawl of the city.  It was dark out, but much of the city was unlit, nothing shining through the windows, no street lights illuminating the roads, nor the headlights and taillights of traffic.

Noting where he was looking, Director Piggot spoke, “Because the current situation is serious, and it isn’t improving as fast as we’d like.  You’re going to have to be on the top of your game.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Clockblocker and Vista are your best assets.  Clockblocker is a Striker 7 with touch-based time-stopping.  Vista is a Shaker 9.  Large scale spatial distortion.”

“Geez louise.  The others?”

“Kid Win is a Tinker 4.  Guns and antigravity devices, primarily.  Shadow Stalker is more ambiguous.  Breaker 3, sublabels are Stranger 2, Mover 1.  Her particular nature as a ‘breaker’ makes her superlight, semi-gaseous, transparent and capable of passing through solid surfaces.”

“Okay.  The team sounds well rounded, I can work with that.”

She handed him a stack of files, “Here’s the files on local factions, including your new team, and a file on the solo heroes and villains.  You’ll have limited access to the databases as well, which you should be familiar with, but this should get you the essential details to get underway.  I’ve ordered those files loosely by priority, so you’ll find the most need-to-know information at the top of the pile.”

Weld took the folders and opened the one for the Wards, glanced through it to memorize the faces of his new team.  Then he went to the next file, “Then the top priority as far as opposition goes is… the Archer’s Bridge Merchants?  Superpowered drug dealers.  A Shaker 2, Tinker 2/Mover 3 and a Shifter 4.  These aren’t big numbers.  Am I missing something?”

“Context.  They’ve become a rallying point, representatives and leaders for those on the lowest rungs of society.  Too many civilians who were the have-nots think allying with the Merchants is a way to become the haves.  People that were angry, disenfranchised or both have gravitated towards the group, are seeking to overturn the social order.”

“So they’ve got, what, a following of homeless?”

“Brockton Bay doesn’t, or didn’t,  have many that you could strictly call homeless, as there were so many abandoned buildings to squat in.  When the Endbringer attacked, he chose the area with many of these buildings.”

“I think I remember, yeah.  The area where the fight started didn’t exactly look upscale.”

“The sad irony of this is that the defending parahumans protected that area, while other locations were leveled by the tidal waves.  That area, known to locals as the Docks, was not under the control of any organized crime or villain organization even before the attack.  After the battle’s conclusion, it was swiftly occupied by the Merchants and growing numbers of their followers, and is now one of the areas with reliable shelter.  Not entirely, but more than many.  By the time our local heroes were finished with search, rescue and minimizing damage, their number of followers had reached a critical mass.  In the past several days, they’ve begun attacking the city infrastructure, the airport, grocery stores, malls and they’ve repeatedly seized medical supplies and food as they come in.”

“So a big priority will be safeguarding incoming supplies from relief efforts, protecting key areas of the city so it can recuperate from the disaster.”

“Yes, for the time being.”

“Let’s see, the next group is… Fenrir’s Chosen?”

“One of two major offshoots of the Aryan villain group, Empire Eighty-Eight, which fell apart after the death of their leader, Kaiser.  Fenrir’s Chosen are led by Hookwolf.  Violent, utterly merciless, and reveling in the current chaos.”

“And it looks like he’s a Shaper 4, Brute 7, with the longest list of homicides or suspected homicides I’ve seen on someone who wasn’t already in prison.  Thick file, I take it he has lots of followers?”

“The largest group in terms of parahuman numbers, at present.”

“And this second group, The Pure, is the second offshoot of that Aryan group, I take it?”

“Small but powerful.  Their leader, Purity, is a Blaster 8 and Mover 4.”

“Yeah, there’s a Breaker 9, a Shifter 8 with Stranger 3 and a Master 6 in that group?  I buy that they’re powerful.”

“Their leader has made overtures to us, offering cooperation in helping us regain control of the city.  We have refused her for the time being.  If she approaches you, you are in no way, shape or form permitted to agree to any deals.”

“Noted.  Let’s see…  Coil, powers unknown.  The Travelers have high ratings on their powers, but their crimes are low end, pretty much.  There’s the Undersiders… three Master classifications in one team.”

“Only one of whom is of any particular concern.  Investigations into two members have suggested sociopathic tendencies, and if they’re channeling their efforts into low threat activities such as robberies, we can afford to ignore them for the time being.”

“Faultline’s Crew.  Mercenaries, low rating, mediocre rating, low rating…  A Shaker 12?  Seriously?”

“The girl has cognitive deficiencies that reduce the effective threat she poses, but yes.  Again, that group is not an imminent threat.  In the current situation, I might suggest you leave them be if you cross paths, conserve your group’s strength for the priority opponents.  The Merchants and Hookwolf’s group.”

“Okay.  I’ll have this memorized by the end of the week.”

“I expect you will.  That brings us to more mundane matters.  You’ll be enrolled full-time at Arcadia High School.  It’s close to the Wards headquarters, and your teachers have been informed about your special nature.  I’m afraid there’s no easy answers as far as your appearance and how the rest of the student body will react to you.”

Weld looked down at his hands.  His body, from skin to hair to bone, was all metal and alloys of varying types.  “I’ve dealt with it before, I’ll manage.”

“We can’t enroll you in the co-op program, as your absence would be noted, and would draw attention to others who are using the co-op program to mask their attendance in the Wards.  It won’t be easy, attending high school full-time, keeping up with your coursework and leading the team in your off hours.”

“It’s fine.  I don’t have to sleep much, anyways, so it’s good to keep busy.”

“Good to hear that.  All that said, I have asked your teachers to make special arrangements, reducing expectations toward your homework, provided you are not struggling in any subjects.  The Wards program will also provide tutors should you need them.”

“Okay, cool.”

“You’ll have time to get into the swing of things without worrying about school, as the high schools are all currently shut down for repairs and to allow time for thorough investigation of the premises.  When the schools are open, we’ll have you take three courses and attend first year classes on parahumans at the University, if that suits you?”

“Perfect.”

“You’ll be living in a private room in the Wards headquarters, and you’ll have a monthly allowance of four hundred dollars in addition to the money put into your trust account by the program.  We expect you’ll spend this allowance on necessities, such as food and clothing.  You do still eat, yes?”

“Yes,” he answered her, bending the truth.  While he did eat, it was a negligible amount.  As he saw it, there was no real harm done if he pocketed some of that extra money and said he spent it on food.  Given that his tongue was made of an alloy and the pleasures of food were a shadow of what they should be, it was only fair that he enjoy himself in some other way.  He knew that some staff back in Boston had caught on, but they hadn’t said anything.  Director Piggot here gave him the vibe that maybe she wouldn’t be so cool with it.  He’d be more careful until he knew for sure.

“Your quarters have been checked and double checked, so there is no exposed metal, no screws, nails, frames or pegs.”

“I appreciate the thought,” he told her.  His physiology had the unfortunate drawback that he couldn’t help but attach to and absorb metal he touched.  While it had been crippling when he’d first been found, dumped in a junkyard, he had learned ways around it.  He could rearrange the metals that formed his body, separate them into their composite elements, and he extended this particular trick to push all the impurities in the metals out to his ‘skin’.  The impurities, unlike the metal that composed the rest of him, didn’t bond, giving him the ability to handle things with his hands and teeth if he needed to.  It didn’t always work – at least once a week there was one embarrassing moments where he bonded with someone’s wedding ring during a handshake or bumped into a shelf display – but it helped.  Clothes helped as well.

In a more serious situation, such as when he was out on patrol, he could force parts of himself to melt and drop off, leaving a piece of himself behind, but it made him distinctly uncomfortable – pain wasn’t the right word – until he replaced the tissue he’d lost.  More often, he preferred to just tear the offending piece of metal from whatever surface it rested on, whether it was a segment of chain link fence or a hubcap.  Whenever he did it, he’d have to spend as much as an hour dissolving the metal and absorbing it into his body.  Either way, they were only emergency measures.

Which wasn’t to say he was weak.  Being made of materials and alloys as strong or stronger than steel from head to toe made him practically untouchable in a fight.  In addition, his biology fell into some optimal middle ground between organic and inorganic.  For those whose powers affected only living things, he counted as inorganic.  The opposite was also true.

“Do you understand why we have gone to this trouble for your sake, Weld?  Why we are testing your ability as a team leader in a crisis such as this?”

“You’re grooming me,” he replied.

“Yes, but do you understand what we’re grooming you for?” she pressed.

He knew, but he assumed she would prefer to explain.  Besides, how she explained would inform him a great deal about his new boss’s personality.  “Not really.”

“You likely know Director Armstrong in Boston, how he tends to prioritize research and understanding parahumans.  I concern myself with more concrete affairs.  Public relations, parahumans as a part of America.”

Weld nodded.

“What Armstrong continually fails to grasp is that if we do not integrate parahumans into society, help society bend to accommodate your kind, there is no point in lab experiments or classifications.  As bad as things might be with the periodic arrival of Endbringers and parahuman criminals, matters could be ten times worse if panic or prejudice takes hold from the public.  You understand?”

“One thing, ma’am,” Weld spoke.

“Yes?”

He took a deep breath.  Not that he really needed it, but he did anyways.  “Forgive me for saying so, but I get the impression you don’t like or respect Director Armstrong?”

“Your point?”

“I just thought you should know he’s something like a father figure to me.  He’s the one who recruited me to the Wards, got me up to speed.  I’ve already made plans to go to his house for a bit this summer.  Maybe I’m putting myself on your sh… in your bad books by saying so, but I just thought I should let you know I’ll step up to defend him if you start putting him down.”

“I see,” tiny frown lines appeared between her eyebrows.

“Sorry.”

A fire on a street below caught his attention.  A car had been set on fire, and people were crowding around it.

Not noticing, Piggot pursed her lips, “Fine.  My apologies for putting you in that situation.  I won’t say anything further about Director Armstrong for the time being.  I was speaking of the need for public relations?”

“Yes ma’am,” he spoke, feeling somewhat relieved at her composure.  He wouldn’t feel a hundred percent okay about it until he verified her as someone who wouldn’t find some other way to get back at him.

“As the number of parahumans first became clear, a long-term plan was established.  In the early phases of the plan, much effort was dedicated to setting up the Protectorate and Wards, ensuring the public had heroes they could look up to, likable faces, likable personalities.  Merchandising, interviews, tv shows, music, movies and more were all encouraged and supported with the idea of building up this image.  Law, policy and rules for the official groups were all shaped with the idea of gradually building confidence in heroes.”

Weld nodded.

“As we enter the next phase, our objective is to push the public a margin beyond their comfort zone.  We are encouraging and promoting the existence of rogues, which is an unfortunate term that heralds back to the early days.”

“Right,” Weld responded.  The term ‘rogue’ applied to anyone with powers who wasn’t hero or villain, the negative connotations of the term tying back to an era when expectations had been rather different, much the same way the brute classification had been coined.

“This is a sensitive subject, slow to advance, as major corporations are particularly litigious when parahumans get involved.  In simple terms, the big businesses do not want people with powers affecting the status quo, and it is very easy for them to derail years of work with one bad media campaign targeting parahumans.”

“I see,” Weld commented.  He didn’t like that in simple terms bit of what she’d said.  Too many people implied he was stupid because he was strong.  But could he really speak up about it, when he couldn’t be sure if her choice of words came from an offensive or judgemental perspective?  Or was he being overly sensitive?

“The second half of this phase is getting the public more comfortable with the outliers.  The people with stranger powers, and stranger appearances.  You’re likable, Weld.  You have a clearly unnatural appearance, if you’ll forgive me saying so-”

Weld shrugged.  He stood out.  There were a hundred things that bothered him more than stares and comments on the subject.

“-but you have fans, and people are interested in you.  You get higher ratings for your interviews than even the average handsome hero gets.  You’re second most popular for team leaders for number of youtube videos, possibly helped by a briefly lived internet meme featuring your face, and you have a blemish-free record, both academically and in your two years serving as a part of the Wards.”

“Thank you.”

“Provided all goes according to plan, we intend for you to become a member of the core Protectorate team within the span of three to five years.  Making your face national, even international, if you are willing.”

“Wow.  Yeah, I’m definitely okay with that, ma’am,” he tried to feign surprise.  Armstrong had already covered much of this.

“Of course, this hinges on your ability to lead your team, in the here and now.”

“Of course.”

“It seems we will land shortly.  Any questions before we do?”

“One.  I was hoping to arrange interstate training sessions with the New York and Boston Wards groups.  As far as I’m aware, the local team doesn’t do this.  They barely have regular situation training.”

“I recall Triumph made a request for something like this, a few years ago.  I believe we refused him on the grounds that it was frivolous.”

Weld squared his shoulders.  He had to be assertive, here. “I’m firmly of the opinion that it would improve the local team’s ability to cooperate and respond to a greater variety of situations.  I’m totally prepared to eat any and all paperwork on our end.”

Eat the paperwork?”

“I mean I’ll do it all, for the members of my team.  Give you updates after any and all training sessions.  Notes on improvements, lessons learned, weak areas, strengths, resources that could fill any perceived gaps.”

“So long as you’re prepared for me to put a stop to things at any time.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And,” the Director paused a moment as the Helicopter touched down on solid ground, “It cannot cut into the regular patrol schedule.  You and your team members would do this outside of the hours you’re on clock for the Wards.”

“I’ll see if I can sell it to them.  Thank you, Director,” Weld stood.

Secretly, he was elated.  The training games he’d led his team through back in Boston had been some of the more fun moments of his career.  It had also allowed for a harmless but fun interaction with the New York group, giving them a chance to mingle, talk and share war stories.  There was something about being able to mess with others on a level that you couldn’t with teammates you had to fight alongside.  If his new team liked the games half as much as he did, it would be a win in his book.

“Do you wish me to come down and introduce you?”

That earned a moment’s consideration.  Was this woman likable?  No.  Would the others like her?  Probably not.  Which meant that having her introduce him might be detrimental, associate him with someone they might view negatively.

“No, I don’t think it’s necessary, ma’am.”

“Your old keycards will let you in.  I’ll have replacement identification sent to you shortly.  In the meantime, I wish you luck.”

“Thank you, Director,” he handed her his headset and stepped through the door as PRT uniforms opened it.  As if welcoming him into the city proper, there was the sound of a woman screaming down on the street below, the noise turning into a manic laugh in the same breath.  Half the block was without power, and searchlights on the corners of the rooftop scanned nearby streets.  PRT guards stood at the edge of the roof, armaments in hand.  He relaxed at the sight of the guards – if they weren’t acting on whatever was going on below, he didn’t need to worry about it.

He took a deep breath, deep enough that he could feel the groan of the metal stretching to its limits inside his chest.  Then he stepped off the rooftop and through the elevator doors.  When the complex chrome doors shut, they cut off the noise of the helicopter entirely.

It was utterly quiet, inside the box.  There was barely any sense of motion or movement from the elevator.  Tinker designed.  It had to be.  He avoided touching the chrome walls or railing.  It was probably coated with something, but emerging with a piece of railing stuck to him would make for a terrible first impression.

Stepping out into a hallway, he walked up to a security terminal.  He swiped his identification card, spoke his name for the voice authentication, “Weld.”  There was a pause, and then the doors glided open.

His team was there, each with their masks off.

Clockblocker sat in a chair at the huge computer to the right of the room, swiveled to check out their new arrival, then stood, folding his arms.  Red haired, freckled, thin lipped, he wore a costume that was all white, with animated images of clock faces on it.  A white helmet sat on the counter of the computer terminal.

Shadow Stalker was leaning against a wall, thumbing through a smartphone.  She had one foot against the wall, one arm folded just under her chest, her free hand resting in the crook of her other elbow.  She looked up at him, stuck the phone in a pouch on her belt.  She was dark-skinned, pretty, and from  what he could see beneath her costume and her voluminous cloak, she had a nice body.  Athletic figure.  A part of Weld’s adolescent psyche was relieved that there was some eye candy here.

Kid Win and Vista arrived from what the ‘cubicles’ at the far end of the spacious room.  They weren’t really cubicles, but sectioned off areas with beds and room for personal effects.  The base in Boston had been similar.  Kid Win was in civilian clothes, brown-haired, ruddy cheeked in a way that suggested he had been exercising until just recently.  Very normal looking.

Vista was in pyjamas, her hair tied back into a ponytail.  He’d had someone as young as her on his team in Boston, but the boy had been a Thinker, a limited precog content to work and communicate with them from their command station.  This girl had been out in the field – three fingers on her left hand were bandaged, with crimson seeping in through the white.  Her eyes were puffy, as though she’d been crying until very recently.

Should he comment on that?  Offer support?  He wasn’t sure what to say, if it would even be welcome.

“Hello,” he spoke.  He received a chorus of muttered and murmured greetings in return.

“Look,” he said, “I won’t make a big deal of this.  The guys upstairs want me in charge.  It’s going to take me a short while to get up to speed, but I hope to prove to you guys that I can and will work as hard as anyone.”

It was hard to say what he’d expected, but surely he should have gotten more of a response than some blank stares and glazed looks.  Was it the wrong time for this?  Every single one of them looked dog tired.  Clockblocker looked like he was barely managing to stand.

“From everything I’ve heard, you guys are an excellent team, and I hope I can do you justice as a leader.  It’s my hope that we can improve on a winning formula.  I’ve talked to the director about some special training-”

“Training?” Clockblocker interrupted, “You just lost me.”

“If you’ll hear me out, I think you’ll like the idea.”

“Have you seen the situation out there?” Clockblocker challenged him, “Less than an hour ago, I saved a guy I know from my high school physics class from being dragged into an alley by a half-dozen grown men.  One of them stuck him with a needle before I got him away from them.  The Hospitals are shut down or over capacity, so I brought him here.  He’s upstairs right now, getting drugs to ensure he doesn’t get HIV.”

Weld struggled to find something to say, failed.

Clockblocker went on, “Kid Win and I stopped some lunatics in gas masks from mixing ammonia and bleach into a poison gas.  You know why?  They wanted to off the people in an apartment block so they could loot the place and stay there.  There’s people going fucking crazy out there, and you’re talking training.”

“I didn’t mean now,” Weld protested, backpedaling, “I was thinking in terms of the future.  The training would be something to look forward to, after this crisis has passed.”

“You’re assuming it’s going to pass,” Shadow Stalker replied, her voice tired.  “Some are saying this is the way things are going to stay.  I almost agree with them.  This isn’t the kind of city that bounces back from things.”

I’m losing them.  “I can’t believe that.  We’ve got to have hope.”

“Pull a fifteen hour patrol out there, then come back and talk to me about hope,” Clockblocker spoke.  “You know, I could almost play along.  Go with the blind optimism, say yippee to training.  But you don’t even mention the guy you’re replacing?  A few words for the dead?  It’s a matter of respect, bro.”

“I didn’t mean to dismiss them or their sacrifice.  I just didn’t know them, and-”

Clockblocker turned, swiping his arm angrily at his helmet to snatch it off the counter.  Tucking it under one arm, he spoke to the others, his back to Weld, “I’m going to check on my family.  I’ll head there in costume, in case I run into trouble, be back in the morning.  Mind manning the console, Kid?”

Kid Win shook his head, “I need to take a break anyways.”

Vista glanced at Weld, then asked, “Where do you guys need me?”

“Go sleep,” Shadow Stalker spoke, placing a hand on Vista’s head as she walked past the girl, “I’ll start my patrol, go with Clock to make sure he gets home and that he has some backup.  You can relieve me when I’m back, maybe get Clockblocker to go with you.”

“Thank you,” Vista’s voice piped up, with a definite note of relief.

Helplessly, Weld watched as the team split up to go their separate ways, Kid Win sitting down at the far end of the computer station, Shadow Stalker and Clockblocker heading for the elevator.

“I fucked up.  I already lost them,” Weld spoke, mostly to himself.

“No.  They’re just tired,” Vista spoke from beside him.  “And not just lack of sleep.  You’ll see what I mean.  You could’ve mentioned Aegis and Gallant, but you can’t be blamed if Clockblocker didn’t give you time to get around to it.  Nobody’s really in the mood for speeches.”

“Right,” Weld replied, feeling lost, “Aegis and Gallant.  They’re the ones who died?”

Vista gave him a look that could only be described as pity.  “You didn’t even learn their names?  Nevermind what I just said.  Yeah, you fucked up.”

Then she turned away and walked back to the cubicles.  She was halfway there when he saw her rub at one cheek with the back of her hand.

“I… I just got here,” Weld said, helplessly.

I just got told by a pre-teen, he thought.

“Shit,” he swore under his breath.  He found a chair in front of the computer and dropped the stack of file folders on the nearest flat surface.  He plucked the file folder off the top of the stack, opened it and began studying.

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