Chapter 1: Crisis Point
“Sara!” Mom shouted, for the tenth time. “Hurry up, you’re going to be late for school!”
Ugh. Like I hadn’t heard before. Just needed to finish the line, get my words down…
“I’m coming!” I shouted, my fingers dancing across the keyboard like giant droplets of water on a hot griddle. Each word a note in the melody of the paragraph. The staccato echoes of my keys backed by the bassline of Mom’s footsteps thundering up the stairs.
There was a knock at the door. “Sara! Come on! I can’t be late for work!”
“I’m on my way, just putting on pants!” I lied, punctuating it with a click of the submit button and grabbing my backpack. I ran across the room—almost tripping on the pile of dirty clothes and dying—and threw open the door. “See? Ready to go.”
Mom, her face red from the harrowing journey up the stairs, made a peeved noise. “You can’t miss class again or you’ll get written up. Come on.”
“Okay, yeah, sorry,” I mumbled. Already, the phone in my pocket vibrated with a like notification.
My name is Sara Pratt, and I’m no ordinary 15-year-old girl. I have a hobby—no, an obsession, one that causes more chaos and discord than most supervillains. The bane of countless PRT Image departments across the nation.
As I shut the door, one last look at my monitor brought a smile to my face.
Your reply to the topic “Bonds of Love [m/m][Chain Link][Ley Line]” has been posted.
My name is Sara Pratt, and I am a fanfiction author.
Crisis point. A term still foreign to my mind, plucked from the camera phone uploads of a “misplaced” PRT operations manual. I’d downloaded the pictures just minutes before the would-be leaker’s post was nuked from orbit by the PHO mods.
Still, knowing the phrase didn’t stop the anxiety. Didn’t stop my heart pounding in my chest. I was trembling, whether from fear or excitement, I wasn’t sure. Someone honked their horn, making me jump and almost hit my nose with the phone I was holding too close to my face.
When people suffered something traumatic, the PRT paid a visit, usually with a cape, just to check in. Not that the PRT tours weren’t fun, I went every chance I could, but actually talking to one of the Rose City’s finest? My heart fluttered at the thought.
It was time. I couldn’t back out, not now. Not when I’d gone so far. I started walking, taking deep breaths in a vain attempt to calm down. Calm. Peace. I mashed the volume up button on the side of my phone, the chorus of Alexandria: The Musical drowning out the sounds of traffic.
I slid my phone into my pocket. My walk became a jog as adrenaline started pumping, then a run, then an outright sprint down the sidewalk. I was getting closer, now, my astigmatic eyes slowly resolving the blurry red hand icon. I kept running, my feet leaving the sidewalk and bouncing off the asphalt.
Josephine Villiers’ beautiful soprano voice blocked out the sound of the horns. I couldn’t hear a thing, which was good. Otherwise I might’ve instinctively dodged the car that didn’t stop in time.
My last thought, in slow motion as I saw the windshield my face was about to go through?
Hopefully they’d send Chain Link to check on me.
I woke up to the alarmingly-familiar sounds of hospital machinery.
Third time’s the charm?
“Malhgfkjghl,” I murmured, my mouth dry from anesthetics.
“Sara! You’re awake, thank god.” It was Dad’s voice. My eyes flickered open. He was sitting in the ugly teal chair. Well, was, he’d moved to give me a gentle, worried hug.
“What… happened?” I stammered out, as if I didn’t plan it out weeks in advance.
“You… you don’t remember?” he asked. “You went to the gas station, and there was a robbery… we still don’t know why, he got away and didn’t even take anything.”
“Oh my… is everyone okay?” I stammered, faux tears filling my eyes. “I’m so sorry, if I would’ve known…”
“Sara, it’s okay. Everyone’s fine. Just stay calm okay hun? You need to rest up.”
And he complained that seventh-grade drama camp was a wasteful expense.
Still, getting stabbed did take a lot out of you. I let my eyes drift shut.
Sometime later. “Sara, honey? Are you awake?”
My eyes flickered open. Mom was there, her weary face filled with concern. “Sara?”
“Hey Mom,” I said weakly.
“There’s a visitor here to see you, are you up for that?”
“W...who?” I cleared my throat. Stupid flim.
Mom glanced to her left, out the door to the hospital room. The sound of footsteps, and… Oh my god.
Ley Line stepped into the hospital room. His green-grey yukata was short, cutting off at the thighs for easier movement. The speckled brown sash around his waist was adorned with various colored objects. It was a utility belt, but everything was colored in a dark, foresty hues. His pants were the only part that really changed, and led everyone to suspect that he'd kept his outfit as simple as possible in order to keep whatever pants on he'd been wearing at the time.
Of course, those were removed in his genderbender fic (my greatest shame as an author, not coming up with the idea first), and his mask was made far more coy in the fanart. Instead of the stolid, stern, earthen and bark face, it featured vines and coquettish eyes.
“H…hi,” I stammered, feeling my face turn red. There was a beep from the heart machine, and I yanked the electrodes out of it, trying not to die of embarrassment. I’d had some stitches, not a triple bypass.
“Ms. Pratt?” Ley Line said, stepping forward and offering a gloved hand.
“Y-yep, that’s me,” I said like an idiot, shaking his hand. Warm.
“We were worried sick when we heard our biggest fan got hurt,” he said, a tinge of… something… in his voice. “I was on a patrol and I thought I’d drop by.”
“Oh I mean I don’t know about biggest fan,” I stammered (I totally was). “But really, you shouldn’t have, not for little ol’ me…”
“It’s the least I could do,” the superhero replied, smiling a PR-approved smile.
“You don’t have to worry, sir,” I cut in. “I get it. Crisis points and all that.”
“Crisis points?” His voice had a touch of suspicion.
“Oh, I mean. Well, last time I was in here, a PRT man stopped in, and said it was a thing they did to check in, I guess? I get that it’s part of the job, I mean.”
“Well, that’s not the only reason I’m here,” the hero said, a hint of coyness in his voice. He glanced at Mom. “While you were asleep, your mother and I spoke some.”
Oh god. I felt the blood drain from my face. “Oh?” Oh god she didn’t mention the fic please tell me she didn’t mention the fic. What if he read it oh fuck fuck fuck this is baaaaad.
“We’d like to offer you a job at the PRT.”
“Well, ‘paid internship’, technically. You’d be helping around the office, after school and during the summers, if you were interested—”
“What???” I made a squeeing noise. “This can’t be real? Are you serious! Aaaaaaaaaa!!!!!”
“I take that as a yes?” Ley Line asked. I could sense some relief in his tone.
“Yes!” I would’ve jumped out of bed and given him a hug, but I had stitches holding my stomach closed and about eight machines attached to me. And it woulda been kinda weird. “Thank you thank you thank you!”
He smiled I made a superhero smile oh my god and took a step backwards. “We’ll talk more soon, okay Sara? For now, you should get some rest, before your nurse yells at me.”
“Pfft, like she’d dare yell at a superhero,” I grinned. “Thank you though.”
“You said that already,” Mom butted in, stepping over to follow Ley Line. “I’ll be back in a second, okay?”
“Okay Mom.” I leaned my head back onto the foam hospital pillow, still grinning. Mom and Ley Line stepped outside as I pondered the amazingness that had just happened. I’d be working at the PRT? As a job? That was… was… wow. I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d get mad at me for writing fanfiction. Or were they sponsoring fanfiction?
I was so embroiled in my fifteen-year-old level knowledge of copyright law, that I almost missed the quiet conversation just outside the room.
“...said she had a black line earlier.” Mom’s voice, quiet.
“Yes. Not a good color,” Ley Line replied.
“Is it still…”
“No. It’s… orange, now.”
“Is that better? It doesn’t sound better.” Oh, the voice of concerned mothers everywhere.
“It’s… a mix. Good and bad. Good for her, certainly.”
“And bad for…”
There was a long, uncomfortable pause before Ley Line replied. “Me. Very bad for me.”
“Retinal scan failed.”
Shit! Fuck! Stupid Tinkertech piece of junk!
I jammed my eye into the elevator wall once again, trying not to drop the tray of coffee cups I held in both hands. The retinal scanner shined a laser once again into my eye.
“Retinal scan failed. One attempt remains before lockout.”
“Aaaaaaaaa why is this happening!” I shouted to myself, taking a deep breath and trying my other eye.
Slowly, the laser bounced its way over my eyeball. I could feel my butthole pucker up at the thought of the containment foam exploding out and filling the elevator. My first day, and I’d ended up spending half of it with my face smashed against the elevator control panel.
It had taken two months for the Wards team to stop calling me “Stranger 12”. I was not about to relive that.
“Retinal scan passed.”
“Thank you!” I shouted at the stupid robot, stepping back as the elevator lurched into motion. The lobby got the fancy smooth elevator, that you didn’t even feel as it whisked you up and down at the speed of light. This elevator? Predated the building being PRT. I was fairly certain it predated capes. I was surprised it didn’t come with a man in a top hat and vest to operate the controls.
Eventually, the service elevator shuddered to a halt, the door squeaking open. I stepped out, into the dimly-lit hallways of Sublevel 1. The PRT barracks and armory. The sour smell of body odor and the plastic scent of containment foam mixed with the bitter aroma of the coffee.
“Sara, there you are!” It was the friendly voice of Sergeant Cooper, squad leader for today’s patrol.
“Hi!” I said, handing her her coffee and pretending not to notice her pull a flask out from under her body armor. Something was… wrong, though.
“Thanks!” she replied, returning her flask—full of creamer, definitely—to its hidey-hole behind the kevlar and chain mesh. Then I noticed what was wrong.
She was smiling.
The last time I’d seen Sergeant Cooper happy, it was because she got to shout for ten minutes at her squad because someone had left out a canister of confoam counter-agent. After that tirade, I didn’t for a heartbeat doubt the rumors of her being an ex-Marine drill instructor.
“What’d I do?” I asked before my brain sent the shut the fuck up signal to my mouth. I couldn’t help but notice the normally-rather-rowdy squad she commanded was being kinda quiet today.
“Coffee on the table,” she pointed. I rushed to set it over, worried. A couple of the more addicted PRT officers flocked over like armored pigeons to a scattering of caffeinated breadcrumbs. I turned back around slowly.
She was setting out a spare set of PRT armor. “Remember that time you asked if you could go on a patrol?”
“I talked with Command, and they said you could tag along, just as a one-time thing.”
“I… you’re kidding, right?” I stammered out. What the shit is she being serious right now?
“Serious as a Shit Shaker,” she quipped. “Come on, I need to make sure this fits.”
“I… I… wow oh em gee are you serious???”
“Come on, we don’t have all fucking day, kid.” And there she was back to being the regularly scheduled Sergeant Cooper.
One of the troops slapped my shoulder hard enough to make me wince. Officer Juarez. He was nice. Once he’d let slip that he’d read Bonds of Love. Why a 35-year-old PRT officer wanted to read superhero yaoi was beyond me. “Congratulations Sara, after all the shit you put us through this summer, it’s time for us to get even. Three layers of dark-colored armor in a Portland July ought to do it.”
It took about ten minutes to get the armor on, with Sergeant Cooper (really, I was convinced her first name was Sergeant. I’d never heard anything else) helping get the buckles and straps tightened, and the helmet securely attached. They’d even made one of the embroidered nametags for me. If it weren’t for the fact that I couldn’t carry any weapons, and that I was five-foot-three, someone might even have believed that I was actually one Officer Pratt, Rose City PRT.
God, that was catchy though, wasn’t it? Officer Pratt.
No, Director Pratt. Nobody had ever said ambition was a bad trait to have, right?
Still, surrounded by the squad of nine other PRT troops as we headed up the fancy elevator to the parking garage, I kinda felt like I belonged. It was totally normal for an officer to have their heart beating its way out of her chest, right?
“Squad Five, this is Valiant, radio check,” Sergeant Cooper’s voice came out of the radio. Since her voice also came out of her mouth a little more quickly, it made her very hard to understand.
“Outrider, all good.”
“Zubat, loud and clear.”
“Yo it’s DJ Aftermath here, live on Radio PRT—” Officer Juarez’s voice was cut off as Sergeant Cooper punched him. “...Aftermath, coming in clear.”
“Cougar, loud and clear.”
“This is Capitol, yo.”
“Paladin here, you’re coming in.”
“Moxy Lady, hi.”
Wow. That’s a lot of callsigns. It was all so cool I didn’t even know what to think—
Someone elbowed me.
“Saaaaara,” Sergeant Cooper said in her grinning voice. “Radio check?”
Shit shit shit shit I need a callsign fuck.
“Uhhhhhhh…” What would I call myself? It was like that moment in an RPG when the game asked for your name, except I didn’t have two hours to look up name meanings online. I was just here being a knockoff PRT officer. Wait…
“Knockoff here, I can hear you just fine!”
“I didn’t hear that. Try again.”
“Uhhh… is it working?”
“Are you holding down the button in your glove to transmit?”
Fuuuuuuuuuck. “Knockoff here, hi.”
“There we go. Okay, we’re going to be patrolling east of the river tonight, so mostly we’re worried about the Teamsters. They shouldn’t be causing any trouble, since our superpowered friends upstairs gave them a smackdown. Still, I want everyone to keep eyes out. Knockoff, you here?”
“Hi, yes hi.”
“If there’s so much as a pip of villain activity, you’re to lock yourself in the van. You remember your Master/Stranger training?”
“Good. You know what to do if I call that out then. Ley Line will be riding along with us, and Powerplay will be up in the skies if we need her.”
The elevator doors opened, and as a group we all stepped out, towards a pair of waiting black-and-purple PRT vans. Sergeant Cooper gestured for me to hop into the one that had the computerized foam turret attached to the roof.
Fuck, this is really happening isn’t it?
It was surprisingly comfortable inside the van. Decent seats, good legroom. I’d only ever seen the containment vans before, the ones with the hard metal benches in the back. This was actually pretty nice. I was in the backseat, four other troops piling in with me. Officer Juarez was next to me, gloved hands resting on the joystick for the rooftop foam turret.
“Valiant here, van one ready to depart, just waiting on the cape.”
“Moxy in van two,” our driver radioed. “All set.” She cut the mic before turning around. “Seatbelts and all that good shit on.”
I’d already had mine on. Unlike three months ago, I’d stopped acting suicidal. I still wasn’t sure if that was healthy or not, thinking about it that way, but in the end it’d gotten me the coolest high school job ever.
“Stop! Abort! Halt!” A new voice hopped on the radio. Ley Line, frantic. I glanced over at the turret’s monitor, and from the rooftop camera I could see the superhero sprinting towards our van.
He threw open the door. I could hear his breath, heavy, like he’d ran down five flights of stairs and across the building to get here. That was where the Protectorate HQ was, so I figured it was a good guess.
“What’s wrong?” Cooper’s voice came over the radio. All business.
“Black… black line,” he wheezed. Death.
“Shit! How many.”
“Just,” a deep breath. It seemed like superheroes should’ve been in better shape. Especially when they were solid Thinkers who didn’t have super-strength backing them up. “Just her.” His finger was leveled at me.
“What,” I said quietly. “Me?” I felt my heart sink into my stomach.
“Who?” Sergeant Cooper growled.
“Knockoff,” Moxy replied over the radio. Her voice was worried.
“What the actual fuck. I’m coming over there.”
“Black line? What do you mean?” I stammered. I knew what it meant. I just didn’t want to...
“You have a black line,” Ley said. “Black line. Imminent death. Something needs to change.”
“Sara,” Sergeant Cooper was at the van door, next to Ley Line. “Hop out real quick.”
“I… okay,” I said quietly, feeling a bit numb. I undid the seatbelt and hopped out, back into the PRT parking garage.
“What’s it now?” Cooper asked Ley Line. The Thinker looked… not at me, but next to me, studying the empty air intently. “Well?”
“Quiet, it takes time for it to get a new reading,” Ley Line snapped, pinching the bridge of his nose. I stood there, awkwardly, the fifty pounds of body armor feeling extra heavy under the entire squad’s scrutiny. “It’s fine now. Orange. I’ll take what I can get,” the hero finally spoke.
“Okay. Sara, I’m really sorry, but you’re gonna stay put this time, alright? We’ll take you out next patrol but I’m not risking your life.” Sergeant Cooper knelt next to me, her eyes meeting me through our visors.
I simply nodded, a sick feeling in my stomach. “...okay.”
“Next time, I promise.”
“Yeah, sure, okay.”
She gave me one final, long look, before standing up. Her voice blared in the radio, “Okay. Squad Five, Knockoff is staying home per the cape. Let’s head out.” She went back to her van, Ley Line took my place in ours, and within thirty seconds the two black-clad vehicles had pulled out, leaving me alone in the lot.
I left my helmet on so the security cameras wouldn’t see me crying.
“Sara?” Dad said quietly. “Is everything okay? You’ve been quiet all weekend.”
There was the crackling of the campfire. Right when I’d gotten home that night, they’d dragged me off. Weekend camping. No cell service, no laptop, no connection to the rest of the world. Just me and my thoughts for three days.
“Sara?” Dad repeated.
“Yeah,” I said quietly.
“You know you can talk to your Mom and I, right?”
“You’ve been off, all weekend.”
I didn’t respond.
“Sara… is it those bullies again?” Mom butted in, looking at me with concern.
“No. It’s nothing. I’m fine.”
They looked at each other, then back at me.
“Can I just go to bed?” I asked, looking into the fire. “Sorry. I’m just tired.”
“...Okay, get some rest hun.” Mom’s voice was hurt. I didn’t notice.
The fire made a crackle as I stood up, sparks flying into the sky like a million dancing, dying fireflies. I walked over to the tent and ducked in, zipping it shut behind me. I didn’t bother to get undressed before I slid into my sleeping bag.
Outside, there was the sound of crickets echoing through the forest, the gargle of the little creek we’d camped next to. The scent of pine was thick in the air.
Any other time, it would’ve been relaxing. Here, now, it just made me think back.
Black line. After months of delivering coffee and making photocopies, I’d finally had a chance, a foot in the door of my dream job. All thrown away at the last minute by a precog’s premonition. Just like that. I’d jumped in front of cars, nearly drowned in the Willamette, planned my own stabbing… and I had nothing to show for it.
I was a fuckup, a disappointment. A fucking nobody loser who wrote smutty shipfics and bit off more than she could chew.
What if I hadn’t gone far enough? My original plan, watered down to running through traffic. I should’ve stuck with the train. Tied weights to myself before I’d jumped into the river. Told the hobo to use a gun.
I was useless. Trash. A waste of energy.
I wondered if Ley Line would’ve seen a black line if he were here right now. I wanted him to. It was what I deserved, what I—
I was surrounded by a million fireflies.
That was the night my life changed forever.
Chapter 2: The Unwritten Rules
The quiet tinny sound of the dial tone was interrupted by an equally-quiet voice. “Washington County 911, what is your emergency?”
Outside the room, there was a rattling sound of the supervillain’s hatchet scraping along the sheetrock. The sound sent shivers up my spine, and made my already shaky hands tremble even more.
“This is 911, can you hear me?”
My breath was shallow and ragged, I was scared to draw more than a gasp, lest he find my hiding spot. I certainly couldn’t talk. Quietly, I pressed the keypad three times. A pause. Three more times.
The dispatcher said something, but I didn’t hear them. I was too busy staring in horror at the doorknob as it slowly turned.
Fuck, this wasn’t good. I looked down. Phone in one hand, useless laser pistol in another. I hit the laser pistol against my knee a couple times, the status LEDs flickering dimly, and leveled it at the door. My hand was shaking so hard, I was worried I’d miss, even with the short distance.
The light from the hallway cascaded across my face as the door opened. Finally, with no hope of remaining hidden, I spoke into the phone. “My name is Sara Pratt. I’m a parahuman. Please tell my parents I love them.”
God my fucking head hurts what the hell do you want?
“Sara, are you okay?”
“Hiii,” I groaned, pushing my head off of the desk and blowing a spare strand of dirty blonde hair out of the way. It was Sergeant Cooper, her PRT uniform crisp as ever, looking down at me.
“What the hell? Why are you napping at my desk.” It was less a question and more of a please stop doing this right now.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “Thought you were off today and my head is killing me.”
“Well, I wanted to talk to you anyway.” She walked around behind me and pulled the seat backwards in the least-subtle get out of my chair way. Reluctantly I complied, and she took my spot, looking me over like a hawk looking over a mouse.
“Did you go drinking?” she finally asked, more than a bit of incredulity in her tone.
“What? No!” I said frantically, loud enough to make me wince and clutch at my temples. I continued, quieter. “I just… under the weather? I didn’t get much sleep last night, or the night before.” I’d been restless, with pressure in my head I couldn’t get rid of and a feeling I couldn’t shake.
“Sara… it’s seven in the morning, not even the capes are here yet. Grab some knockoff Excedrin from medical, head home, get some rest, and enjoy your Independence Day. We’ll manage without you for a day.”
“No!” Ouch fucking shit. “Just… please. I don’t want to go home. I don’t… look, you wouldn’t understand.”
“I…” I glanced down at the drab office carpet, stuffing my hands in my pockets. “I want to be here. Doing something. Being useful. Not at home with… with my thoughts.”
I could feel Sergeant Cooper’s eyes drilling through my skull. “Sara. What do you want to do when you’re older?”
“Work here, of course,” I said without a pause. “Admin, Image, Ops, I mean any of them really. Working for the PRT is the best.”
“And before you started here? What then?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Answer the damn question before I stop giving a shit.”
I blinked. “Uh…” What had I wanted? Had I even wanted anything? Viewers, maybe. PHO likes were nice. But writing fanfiction didn’t pay the bills, and original cape fiction was hard to compete with the real deal right out the window. “I don’t know. I figured I’d find it when I saw it?”
“And you think the PRT is ‘it’, do you?”
Was it? The last few months… they’d been nice. Fulfilling. I’d always loved cape culture, and now I was a part of it, albeit from the sidelines. It… yeah, actually. “I do.”
Sergeant Cooper stood up. “Good. Follow me.”
Before I could so much as say anything, she pushed past me and out the door. I rushed to keep up, squinting at the bright fluorescent lighting that plagued the hallway and made the back of my eyeballs hurt more. Thankfully at the speed she was walking it didn’t take long for us to make it through the narrow passages and into a dimly-lit breakroom, where a coffeepot was brewing. It wasn’t the nice one upstairs that I normally got everyone’s coffee from, but it was the closest, which I guessed was more important right now.
I slumbed down into one of the old folding chairs, resting one side of my head on the shitty plastic table, watching her pour coffee. Even though it was seven in the morning there was the brief flash of a flask, and a second later a paper cup was sitting next to my face.
“I don’t drink coffee,” I groaned, leaning up. “Thank you though.”
“You look like you’re about to die from exhaustion. Have some caffeine.” Her words were punctuated with a contented sipping sound.
I reluctantly took a sniff. It was a nice aroma, at least. Warm, a hint of...hazelnut? I wasn’t sure. I lifted the cup and took a little sip…
“Ugh this is awful,” I groaned, making a face. Bitter as fuck. Why wouldn’t it taste like it smelled?
“Acquired taste,” Cooper admitted. “Suffering builds character.”
I reluctantly took another sip, trying not to let the foul fluid—or its scalding heat—touch my tongue for any longer than it had to.
“I’m sorry about the patrol the other day,” she said, sitting down across from me with a grunt. “It was too big a risk.”
“...it’s fine, I get it,” I replied, not sounding bitter at all. “Black line and all, yeah.”
She nodded, taking a swig of coffee. “Nothing happened on the patrol. That’s a worry. It’s hard to tell with precogs, but we’re hoping that being on high alert scared away whatever would’ve gone down.”
“...why is it a worry, then?”
“In case nothing was ever going to happen.”
“Which would mean…?” I trailed off.
She gave me a flat look. Right, it’d mean I was the one that caused my own death.
“Gotcha,” I replied sullenly, taking a bigger drink of the coffee. On my empty stomach it was at least starting to wake me up already.
“I’d like to try again, if you’re okay with it,” she replied. “I know it means a lot to you, and maybe with some preparedness you won’t get yourself killed this time.”
“Thanks,” I quipped. “If… if you’re okay with it, sure. I’m not gonna lie and say I wasn’t disappointed.”
“Yeah, we fuckin’ blue-balled you. I’ll ask Ley to hang around beforehand so we can catch any black lines earlier.”
We continued to drink in silence, me thinking about… nothing really, and Sergeant Cooper had pulled out her phone and was reviewing documents.
“Why are you here today, anyway?” I asked quietly.
“Behind on paperwork,” she said without looking up. “Ops has the same amount of forms as Admin, far more than Image, and yet none of the other departments have to spend eight hours a day driving a van. Normally I’d catch up over the weekend, but Rick and I went to the coast.”
She glanced up. “My husband.”
“Wait, what?” I stammered out before feeling my cheeks turn red with embarrassment. She’s fucking MARRIED? That poor man.
“I have two kids, you dipshit,” she muttered, draining her coffee. I could tell from her expression she hadn’t taken it personally, thankfully.
“Sorry, that was rude.”
Well, this was awkward.
I slowly sipped away at my coffee, hoping it would get less awkward. It didn’t, and over an agonizing five minutes I read the stupid laminated poster about workman’s comp while she poked at her phone.
When I was done, she stood up. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
Oh, okay. That’s not vague. “Cool.”
We took the shitty elevator down to the basement, and she led me through the brick-lined walls until we reached a room I hadn’t been in before. One retina scan later, and she led me into what had to have been the PRT’s underground firing range. The sharp smell of spent gunpowder filled the air, and a half-dozen booths were set up, overlooking a long expanse with some paper targets at the end. Sergeant Cooper grabbed some earmuffs off a rack and threw some at me, which I only just caught.
“Have you ever shot before?”
The smell of gunpowder was making my head worse. “Uh… do nerf guns count?”
“Then no, I haven’t.”
“Okay. That’s good.”
“No bad habits,” she said with finality before unlocking a heavy-looking door and disappearing into it. She came back a minute later, holding a gun with a box of bullets tucked into her armpit.
“Uh…” I trailed off.
“I can’t help but feel like this is, um, breaking a rule or two.”
“It is,” she replied, setting the gun down at one of the booths.
“Then why are we doing this?” I felt stupid asking, but I didn’t want to get her in trouble. Or myself.
“Sara, I was part of the discussion on hiring you. In the space of a handful of months, you got hit by a car, nearly drowned, and then got stabbed. And now just the other day Ley Line says you’re about to die. You have the worst fucking luck I’ve seen. Or best, I guess, since you’re not in a grave. Now, nobody’s sending you out with a gun, but…”
She sighed. “Let me put it this way. The Protectorate? Wards? Supervillains? They get superpowers.” She paused to point at the gun. “That is our superpower. We’re not capes. We don’t get the same protections of the so-called ‘unwritten rules’. We also have to deal with containing unknown threats, their henchmen, and also every little thing the police deal with. We’re cops. We’re targets.”
She looked away for a second, and in that instant she changed. Gone was the stern-faced assy drill sergeant. She was… something else. “When I first started out, I was a cop in Seattle. Parahuman Crimes division, before the PRT was a thing. My partner and I got ambushed. A supervillain—a high-rated Stranger—snuck up on us. Tore my partner’s throat out, and nearly took me along with him… That is what we live with, every day. The constant risk of getting murdered because we’re in over our heads.”
“I’m… fuck, I’m sorry,” I said quietly, swallowing a knot in my throat. “I know that doesn’t mean much, but…”
“Don’t be,” she smirked, and suddenly the familiar Sergeant Cooper was back. “He was a Stranger, not a Brute.”
Oh. Fuck, okay.
“Enough small talk. Come on, before your caffeine wears out and you fall over.”
Hesitantly, I knocked on the door. My fucking head throbbed at the sound, making me wince. “Come in, Sara!” Ley Line’s faint shouting from the other side was barely audible. I pulled open the door and stepped in.
His office was surprisingly… well, the first thing I thought was sweltering. Four rotating fans were blowing hot air around, and I could see the outline on the windowsill where an air conditioner had once been. Outside of that, it was sparsely decorated, a handful of potted plants, a bookshelf with binders and PRT manuals stuffed beyond capacity. The man himself was sitting on a small couch to the side of the room, where two fans blasted him directly. If I weren’t sleep-deprived and miserable, I might’ve laughed at seeing the oh-so-professional superhero in a t-shirt and jeans. The only hint he was a cape was the hastily-donned mask.
“You called?” I asked quietly. Surprisingly, the act of talking didn’t make my head spike in as much pain.
“Yes. Sorry about the heat, Maintenance is getting it replaced, but they’re off today because of the holiday. Oh, the many woes of working in a historic landmark. Did you know that the Hillsboro precinct has central air and a swimming pool?” He didn’t sound bitter at all about that. I made a mental note to have him go swimming with Chain Link in my next chapter.
Wait. How the fuck does a case-53 made of metal even swim? That would definitely make PHO flip their ship about “suspension of disbelief” being broken. I moved the idea to the mental back burner.
“I uh. I didn’t know that,” I said dumbly, realizing I’d never responded to his question. Which in hindsight was probably rhetorical.
“...Yes, well I’m a bit jealous. However, since we’re both celebrating our Independence Day at work, I just wanted to touch base with you, I know the patrol was a bit of an uncomfortable situation.”
“Yeah, um. Thanks, I mean. For looking out for me. I mean, I’m not a fan of dying.” The words sounded… false, but I wasn’t sure what else to say. Ley gave me a weird look.
“I understand Officer Cooper had offered to give you some practical training. I’ll be checking in from time to time to make sure you don’t have any more black lines.”
I nodded slowly. “I’m still orange?”
He winced. “Yes.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, I know black is death… what’s orange?”
“Every person I’ve seen with an orange line has attempted to hurt or even kill me. Most succeeded, in one way or another. With hurting, of course, not killing.”
What the fuck? “Oh. I don’t want to hurt you though? Why would I?”
“I don’t know. Unfortunately, powers don’t come with an instruction manual, so this is all what I’ve gleaned throughout the years. Normally my sense is, shall we say, much more short-term than this. Within the space of a few hours, tops.”
“Except… it’s been months,” I replied. I was glad my headache was wearing off finally, because this was spooky as fuck. “And I’m still destined to, what, try and kill you?”
“Or cause me to be hurt, yes. Or it’s possible that somehow you’re immune to my power.”
Fuck I don’t want to hurt anyone. Why is this a thing? What the hell?
“In any case, right now your line isn’t black, which is what’s important. If you want—” He was interrupted by the phone at his desk ringing. “—One moment.” He stood up with a groan, leaving behind a Ley Line-shaped outline of sweat on the fabric of the couch, walking over to his desk. “I have to take this. Good day, Ms. Pratt.”
“Oh, uh, alright. Uhhh see ya?” I asked, heading for the door, my head spinning with questions. He only gave me a nod before I shut the door behind me, back into the air-conditioned bliss of the hallway.
That was weird.
Part of me wondered why he didn’t just keep the door open to let cold air in. Maybe it was a thing with masks. Another part of me wondered why my headache had gone away, leaving me with just a nagging restlessness, and a strange pull in the back of my mind.
Fun fact! On Earth Aleph, did you know that RadioShack is in danger of bankruptcy? Looking at the entrance to the store, it was kinda hard to believe. Even today, there were people bustling in and out with all matter of the latest electronics and gadgets. Why I’d stopped, I wasn’t so certain. Something about it had caught my attention. Besides, what harm would a little browsing do? I shrugged, and walked inside, taking a deep breath.
Well, as it turns out, I didn’t need a new phone, decent cameras were too expensive, and a drawing tablet was a waste of time for my talentless ass. Still, it was nice to browse.
Ten or fifteen minutes later, I found myself in the back of the store, looking blankly at the little drawers of electronic components. It was a bit nostalgic, really. When I was a kid, Dad had tried to teach me how to solder, and it had resulted in what was the first of apparently many hospital visits.
It had been awhile, though. Part of me was aware that my current hobby of writing fanfiction probably wouldn’t fly for long; my practical side kept yammering about how eventually I’d fuck up and use a story detail I wasn’t supposed to know, and if I wanted a PRT job… yeah.
I opened one of the drawers, looking blankly at the components. The little rainbow sausages were resistors if I recalled correctly, and the miniature soupcans were capacitors. I couldn’t help but smile at the sight. Maybe it IS time for a new hobby… I started rifling through drawers, grabbing little pouches of things at random. It wasn’t like I had rent or living expenses to spend my paychecks on, so why not.
“Sara?” someone said suddenly, poking my shoulder. I jumped at the surprise, glancing up at…
I have no fucking idea who this guy is.
He was around my age, tall, skinny but muscular. Brown hair and apologetic blue eyes. “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you,” he said scratching the back of his neck. If I were writing a fic and he were the protagonist’s romantic interest, I would’ve described him as dorkish but charming.
He wouldn’t be getting that description.
“Hi,” I said awkwardly. Someone from school? But how did he know my name? I didn’t talk to anyone at school.
“I said your name like five times and it was like you didn’t even notice. If I didn’t know better I’d say you were a Tinker or something.” He laughed pointedly.
I blinked. Yes, because the only people who shop at RadioShack are Tinkers. “Nope, sorry. Just a normal person.”
“Ha ha, yeah.”
I wasn’t sure what to do now. Come on dude, give me a fucking hint.
“Uh, well I just noticed you were looking at photocouplers, and the ones you grabbed have a defect.” He opened one of the drawers, taking out a different baggie than the kind I’d grabbed. “These guys are a little more, but they won’t fry at ninety percent load.”
“Oh, um, thanks?” I grabbed his pouch and added it to the pile of stuff I’d gathered up into a basket. “What, do you work here or something?”
“Ha ha, no, just speaking from experience!” He did that nervous laugh thing again, as if I’d told a funny joke.
There is nothing in the world that will top this level of awkwardness.
He cleared his throat. “Hey so uhhhh I was wondering if maybe you wanted to catch a movie sometime?”
I stand corrected.
A plan entered my head. A most devious plan. “Uh, sure, it’ll depend on my work. Just text me sometime and we can work something out? You’ve got my number, right?” If I knew who he was and had just forgetting who the hell he was due to sleep deprivation, then he’d be in my contacts, right?
“Yeah sure, totally!”
“Cool.” There was an awkward silence. Fuck what the hell do I do I’m not equipped for this. “Anyway, I’d better get going. I don’t want to miss the next train home.”
“Oh okay! Talk to ya later!” he replied. I took the opportunity to escape to the cashier and spend a lot more money than I’d expected.
It wasn’t until I was on the train with my bag of stuff that I noticed a text: “Hey”, from a number I didn’t have saved.
It was a single expletive, but right now, I felt like it carried a lot of weight.
I’d decided to try fixing up Dad’s old broken SLR camera, as something to whet my teeth on for my new hobby. I’d redone some of the circuits, reflashed the firmware, and applied a makeshift new lens coating to the wide-angle lens. It was suddenly a lot more obvious that these weren’t the typical beginner tasks.
I deleted the photo off the camera and looked back through the viewfinder. Yowly, one of our two cats, was contentedly scarfing down the can of food I’d just set down. Just like in reality. I took a picture, and stepped back from the tripod-mounted camera to take a look at the display.
Yowly was sitting in his cat bed, and his sister Lily was frozen by the camera as she walked across the room. I looked up at the living room. Yowly finished eating, and jumped up into his bed with a thump. In silent horror I watched as Lily walked into the room, meowing at me before walking across the room. The picture on the camera’s screen went away.
Somehow fucking how I’d made the camera… see into the future? I grabbed the camera off the tripod and ran to my room, pulling open the blinds and taking a picture of the street. On the display, a red truck was frozen. A moment later… there it was driving down the road.
The camera, the headaches, the restlessness, the weird urges… oh god. Was I… No. That was impossible, right?
I looked down at the camera. The impossible, time travelling camera.
“I’m a parahuman?”
“I’m just saying, it doesn’t set a good precedent,” Officer Juarez said, waving his arms. “We’re going after villains in schools now?”
I set down my pencil, rubbing my temples. Getting inspiration from Powerplay would’ve been a lot easier if she’d shut the fuck up for more than ten seconds.
“Dude, she’s a warlord who took over half the city,” said Ward exclaimed, shaking her head. “Three months ago Brockton Bay was just another Rust-belt shithole run by neonazis, and she somehow made it worse.”
“Getting hit by three S-class threats in a month did that, you mean. In any case, breaking the rules like that… shit, you’re the cape, you tell me you’re okay with that.”
“At some point the unwritten rules stop applying, the only argument is where the line is. Skitter crossed it.”
I couldn’t take anymore. “Oh my God who cares!?”
The pair turned to look at me. “You okay, Sara?” Officer Juarez asked.
“You guys have been arguing for all of lunch over this dumbass villain! Who gives a shit, the world’s bigger than Skitter.”
“Hey man, chill,” Powerplay grimaced. Well, it sounded like she grimaced. Masks and all. “We’re just talking about current events.”
“Literally anything else is more interesting. It’s just beating a dead horse at this point. I can’t even check PHO without eighteen filters to block out Brockton this and Skitter that.” I sighed, suddenly realizing I’d made a huge ass of myself. “Sorry. I guess I’m just frustrated.”
“Hey kid, don’t worry about it. Maybe it’s best we moved on anyway, this argument is just gonna go in circles,” Juarez said, giving me a reassuring smile.
“Ugh, I guess.” Powerplay didn’t sound too happy. Not that I gave a fuck what she sounded like, I was just here for her power. “What the hell are you working on anyway? It’s lunch, put the stupid paperwork away.” Fuck.
“Oh uhhhhhh—” I was saved from having to make up an answer by my phone going off. “Lemme get that.” I snapped my notebook shut and pulled out my phone.
New SMS message from WHO THE FUCK IS THIS BOY:
hey sara movie 2nite?
“Hey I gotta get this sorry,” I stammered out, not sure how to approach this. As I walked away, I considered. The boy acted like I knew him, that was clear, but I didn’t have the faintest idea who he was… Fuck it. I mean, I’d spent the last week figuring out my power, working on tech, and I’d even laid out a plan for my power.
As far as I could tell, I built stuff related to capes I spent time near. The first day, Monday, I’d met with Ley Line, and ended up with the now-dismantled precog camera. Tuesday I’d figured out that was the case, after I’d designed a grappling-hook sorta thing after helping Chain Link all day with stuff that required opposable thumbs. Wednesday and Thursday I’d lurked near Ley Line and gotten my monitoring system up, to let me hit my first big mark as a cape.
His name was Everything Evil. Borderline kill-order thanks to his habit of dehanding his victims, he had pretty powerful Mover and Brute abilities, along with an emotion-manipulating Striker power that seemed especially useful. I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d do with the combination, but if my plan went well I’d have even more powers to knockoff.
The train of thought just delayed the inevitable. I looked down at the phone, at Mystery Boy’s message. Slowly, I typed out an assent and sent it. After all, I was a cape, if anything happened, I’d handle it. A message came back, a simple smiley face along with a time and address. Okay, sure.
I put the phone away, stepping through a door and into the hallways of the PRT building, walking back to the service elevator. I’d been helping Image all day, helping make the new autumn set of banners that would decorate the exterior of the building in a couple months. It was pretty fun, and all the people in that department were nice. I definitely couldn’t see myself working there as a career, though. I liked Ops better, the nitty-gritty of being in the field, doing the dirty work.
How many capes do you know who work as PRT officers, Sara? my inner thoughts decided to helpfully bring up. I wasn’t worried about that. Capes had day jobs, what was stopping me from having one with the PRT? Except you should be in the Wards, Sara. Meh.
Speaking of the Wards, as I got in the elevator I was almost run over by two of them. Mirage and Magnum Opus stepped out, and I had to press myself against the wall. Mirage for some reason gave me a wave; not sure what to do I smiled and waved back before getting in. Both of them would’ve made good power options, but if Powerplay was any indication, spending more than a minute around the Wards would drive me to suicide.
My phone vibrated. I pulled it out, and my breath stopped. How? So soon?
New SMS message from EVIL DETECTOR >:)
Alert: Target spotted.
Another message came in a second later with the address. I couldn’t believe it. Somehow, after a day, my monitoring system had tracked down Everything Evil. I glanced down at my notebook. I’d half-built a laser pistol, doing what I could without a power to guide me, and I was confident I could finish it in as little as four or five hours of feverish, nonstop work.
I glanced over at the elevator controls. I can’t let this chance go, not this soon. The button for the ground floor, for the exit, was right there. I’d catch the train home, finish my tech, and head out once it got dark. It was a simple plan, and simple meant hard to fuck up, right?
I hit the button.
Everything had gone terribly wrong. But I didn’t know that yet.
I’d ran home, finished up the Powerplay-based laser pistol, and with only a scarf disguising my face as a costume, headed out into the night on my bike. My target, Everything Evil, was holed up in an abandoned school, only a couple miles from my house in fact. That was handy, unlike the the people who pissed him off.
First my bike had gotten a flat tire, so I’d chained it to a telephone pole in an alley, and walked the rest of the way until I’d gotten to the school. Then I had to climb over the chain-link fence surrounding the lot, because I hadn’t thought to bring something to cut through it.
Still, small hurdles to climb over, and soon I was inside the squat two-story building. Hard to see much in the darkness, other than graffiti covering the lockers and broken beer bottles that I had to dance around with every step. It had been raining, and the drips cascading down from the ceiling made for a strange sound. A melody of raindrops to accompany the beating of my heart.
My monitoring setup hadn’t gotten a shot of anything except the school, with him in it, so I was cautious, walking the halls carefully, on the lookout for any signs of life. I would’ve thought there’d be more homeless hanging out here, it was (relatively) dry and quiet, at least compared to living under an overpass. Maybe. I’d never lived under an overpass, but it seemed like it’d be noisy. The roar of cars just above your head, the horns of the ever-present Portland traffic acting as impromptu alarm clocks every rush hour. On the bright side though, you didn’t have to share your overpass with a supervillain.
After only five minutes of searching, I found him. He’d converted a classroom into a sorta-home. Bed, kitchen area, laptop and television even. Some pleasant-looking wall art covered the area where chalkboards had been years ago, and I could see he’d lined the ceiling with tarps to keep the rain out. All things considered, it was pretty nice.
The villain himself was asleep, or at least, there was an Everything Evil-shaped mass under the covers. A grotesque mask, hatchet, and cell phone sat next to his bed on one of those blue plastic chairs. Sleeping was good. It meant I could get hours of his power absorbed. Oh, the things I could make! Already I could feel ideas stirring inside my head, the vague interstellar idea dust condensing into a giant ball of idea hydrogen. Eventually, it would fuse into tinkertech helium and I’d be set.
I’d only need an hour. Maybe two. I sat down on the floor outside the classroom, got my notebook out of my messenger bag, and started writing as best I could in the dim light.
“WHAT THE HELL DO WE HAVE HERE?” The scream, right next to my face, jolted me out of my nap. Shit. Nap? Fuck. Fuuuuuuck! Why the fuck had I fallen asleep?
It was him. Everything Evil, looming above me. Hateful blue eyes poked out between the frozen fingers of his mask, hands covering the entirety of his face. Around his neck, a rosary of hands hung down to his waist, the little beads replaced by fingernails, with the big beads being the dessicated hands themselves. He’d even made a little cross out of a couple fingers, wrapped together in what I’d whimsically call leather.
Part of me wondered what he’d do with my hands. I wasn’t raised religious, but I was fairly certain his rosary thing was full. That wasn’t a healthy thought to have.
“Please don’t hurt me!” I managed to squeak out, my eyes glued to the swinging skeletal hands in front of me. Calm down, Sara. Act. “I… I just needed a place to stay for the night!”
“YOU CAN’T STAY HERE!” he once again screamed. I felt spittle hit my face, thankfully my glasses kept it out of my eyes. The scarf that covered my mouth and nose didn’t do much to stop the… hand smell. God, how did he live with those things attached to his head?
“I can... I’ll just go?” I asked, a bit of hope in my voice, although it was mostly covered up by holy shit terror. “I can find somewhere else. An overpass, or something.”
Evil growled, and before I could so much as squeak in terror, a giant hand clamped around my wrist. I tried to yank away, but it might as well have been encased in concrete. He brought the hatchet down, pressing it against my wrist hard enough to draw blood. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cry.
“Wait! Please don’t! Please I need my hands, more than everyone else!” My voice was frantic. I couldn’t just make Tinker hands. “I promise I can make it up to you! I’ll give you something better than hands!”
Everything Evil froze, as if it wasn’t something he heard from all his victims. Maybe it wasn’t, I dunno. “Speak.” It was a barely-audible growl.
I nodded. Fuck this is bad. I had to buy time, get his guard down, to where I could get away somehow. “I-I-I uhhh I’m just… I wanted to talk.” A deep breath. “You see, I’m… I’m a big fan of yours—” the hand gripping my wrist squeezed, and I was pretty sure I heard something pop! “No please! You’re… you’re my favorite supervillain! Please, I can prove it!”
Men only want one thing, my mom told me once, when she was pissed off at Dad for eating her leftovers she’d been planning on taking to work. Men wanted recognition. I wasn’t sure if that was accurate, but I knew Everything Evil wasn’t most men. He wanted two things. Very luckily for me, he had plenty of hands already. The grip loosened, and I pulled my hand back, wiping the smear of blood off on my leg.
“Prove it,” Everything Evil said, running his thumb along his hatchet blade and sticking it in his mouth. Tasting my blood. Okayyyy...
Okay. Plan. I’m not the only fanfic writer around. I’ll just lookup a fic with him tagged, say I wrote it, and when he’s reading I’ll run for it.
“Alright, uh, Mr. Evil. I’m going to show you, it’s on my phone. No funny business, promise.” I slowly reached a hand to my pocket. When he didn’t murder me, I grabbed my phone and pulled it out.
There was a faint clattering sound. I looked down.
Can I not catch a fucking break tonight?
When I’d pulled my phone out, my lanyard had fallen out of my pocket with it. My dorky, smiling face was attached to the end, right underneath a very obvious logo. My PRT ID. Great.
There was an awkward pause, and then I leapt away, some of my hair staying behind as the hatchet thunked into where my face had been a second ago. As I ran down the debris-filled hallway, I grabbed at my bag, forever grateful I hadn’t taken it off of my shoulder. I felt around as the thunder of Everything Evil’s footsteps got closer and closer, until I had the still-unfamiliar grip of the laser pistol in my hand.
I whipped it out and spun around, flipping the safety and squaring my stance like Sergeant Cooper had taught me. The LEDs I’d embedded into the surface of the former nerf gun flickered on, happy whitish blue. I’m going to have to shoot somebody. For some reason, that thought made it more real, made the villain charging me more real. Which made it easier to decide.
Center mass. Shot lined up. Squeeze, don’t pull. The laser pistol bucked in my hands, a spear of golden blue light lancing forward… and plopping into a puddle of laser ten feet away. Everything Evil screeched to a stop, wary eyes on the shimmering puddle of energy spreading across the floor.
“What the hell that’s not how lasers work!” I shouted, mostly at the stupid fucking pistol before turning around and returning to a sprint, further into the school. There was an earthshattering rumble behind me, and I glanced behind to see Evil tearing a bank of lockers out of the wall and throwing them atop the puddle, creating a painful screech as the steel melted away.
I didn’t stay long enough to see if he made it across, ducking into a stairwell with my heart pounding. Upstairs, I could find another way down or take my chances with a window. I took the stairs four at a time, my bag bouncing off my hip painfully. Slammed the upstairs door open.
“NICE TRY YOU BITCH!” Everything Evil was in the hallway, twenty feet away… how?
Right. Mover rating.
I dove in the other direction, firing the pistol at him to distract. This time, it was like a fat kid jumping on a tube of toothpaste, a splort of laser exploding everywhere. Everything Evil screamed in rage as globs of laser stuck (what the fuck?) to his skin, creating a horrifying sizzling sound and smell.
He dove to the ground and rolled, and I dove down another water-damaged, graffiti-filled hallway. My lungs were heaving, and I could feel the panic setting in.
I picked a door at random, slammed it shut behind me. Old broom closet, the floor covered in condom wrappers and beer bottles. Classy. My back went against the wall just the same. Outside, I heard stomping as Evil ran past. “I’M GONNA FUCKING MURDER YOU TO DEATH YOU BITCH!”
Quietly as I could manage, my shaking hands and heaving chest making me wish I’d worked out more, I pulled out my phone, dismissing the missed call notifications and hitting the emergency button on the lock screen.
Outside, there was an angry roar, and a thud as Evil hit something. The quiet tinny sound of the dial tone was interrupted by an equally-quiet voice. “Washington County 911, what is your emergency?”
Outside the room, there was a rattling sound of the supervillain’s hatchet scraping along the sheetrock. The sound sent shivers up my spine, and made my already shaky hands tremble even more.
“This is 911, can you hear me?”
My breath was shallow and ragged, I was scared to draw more than a gasp, lest he find my hiding spot. I certainly couldn’t talk. Quietly, I pressed the keypad three times. A pause. Three more times.
The dispatcher said something, but I didn’t hear them. I was too busy staring in horror at the doorknob as it slowly turned.
Fuck, this wasn’t good. I looked down. Phone in one hand, useless laser pistol in another. I hit the laser pistol against my knee a couple times, the status LEDs flickering dimly, and leveled it at the door. My hand was shaking so hard, I was worried I’d miss, even with the short distance.
The light from the hallway cascaded across my face as the door opened. Finally, with no hope of remaining hidden, I spoke into the phone. “My name is Sara Pratt. I’m a parahuman. Please tell my parents I love them.”
Golden-blue smeared across the wall, across the door, across Everything Evil, even as he lurched forward with an axe. I barely dodged, and he slammed into the wall. In these close quarters, I couldn’t let him hit me, not with that emotion power. I’d barely managed to luck out before, that he hadn’t had it on—
“Sara, cover!” a familiar voice shouted. Evil and I both looked over in time to see a cylindrical object land in the closet. A second later, it exploded, and I was slammed against the wall as the room filled with putrid foam, pressing me against it hard enough to make me cry out in pain. For a moment, I could see Everything Evil struggle against the ocean of containment foam, and then it rose above the level of my glasses.
Chapter 3: Confession
I understood the logic behind not keeping confoam counter-agent around everywhere. Villains would get it, and it would defeat the point of having containment foam to begin with. Still, covered in foam, barely able to pull acrid chemical-coated air into my lungs, I couldn’t help but feel latent claustrophobia start to set in. Not that I was claustrophobic, but being pressed against a wall by superglue foam that smelled awful… yeah.
Finally, after what felt like an hour, I was greeted by the familiar sweet turpentine odor of the counter-agent. Slowly, the foam melted away, and I fell to the ground, groaning. My clothes were soaking wet; I knew from my elevator experience that my outfit would be permanently stained.
“Sara!” It was the voice of Officer Matthew, pulling me to my feet and looking me over.
“Hi…” I cleared my throat, coughing as fresh air hit it. “Where’s Everything Evil?”
“In containment, you don’t have to worry about him.” He led me out of the broom closet and into the hallway. Half of squad Five was there, along with Mirage and Chain Link. They were all looking at me funny, like I’d grown a second head.
“Hi,” I said awkwardly.
“Hi,” Officer Hayward replied, kneeling down next to me. Her tone was… unfamiliar. “Are you injured? Hurt?” I shook my head silently, and she continued, “Okay. We’ve got to finish sweeping the building, so Mirage and Link are gonna help you out, alright?”
“Okay.” My voice was hollow. What could I even say besides that?
The PRT squad filed away, heading in separate directions, and I was left with the two heroes, looking me down. It was weird. I leaned against the wall, shivering slightly at the chill from my confoam-soaked clothes. Slowly I slid down until I was sitting on the filthy floor looking up at them.
“How long?” Mirage finally spoke. His voice was… I could tell he was trying to remain calm.
“How long? What do you mean?” I asked.
“How long have you been a cape.” Accusatory. That was the tone.
“Oh…” Right. PRT intern suddenly found to be a parahuman. Wasn’t suspicious at all. “About a week.”
“And you didn’t think to tell anyone?”
Chain Link stepped over, setting a length of chain on Mirage’s arm. “Peace, Mirage. Now is not the time,” he ‘spoke’, in that weird monotone voice that wasn’t heard, just perceived in my head. “What is important is that Ms. Pratt is safe and unharmed.” His chain “head” shifted to look at me. I was pretty sure he didn’t see that way, but used it as a way to indicate what he was concentrating on.
“I’m… fine. Just, wasn’t expecting, y’know, that.” I paused. “Sorry, I should’ve figured with my luck something would go wrong. How did you guys find me, anyway?” I couldn’t help but shiver some more. It wasn’t cold, but I was sopping wet with chemicals that clung to my skin. The slight breeze moving through the school’s broken windows didn’t help.
“Well, you never showed up at the theater and weren’t picking up your phone, so I got worried,” Mirage said.
“That was you?” I shouted. “What the fuck? I’ve been trying to figure out who the hell…” I trailed off, feeling my face turn alarmingly red.
“You didn’t know I was Mirage?” Mirage yelled back.
“I had no idea who you were! I just was too anxious to ask, so I didn’t!”
“I thought you picked up on my Tinker joke in the store and were just being coy!”
Chain Link… I guess the equivalent was a groan, but it came across more as clinking. “Mirage, Sara… you are both idiots.”
“Sorry!” we both shouted at the same time. I continued, taking a deep breath to calm down. “Okay, so. I thought you were some boy from school or something, and I didn’t want to admit that I had no idea who you are because I’m terrible with faces and and I thought you’d be in my phone but you weren’t, and…” I trailed off.
“And you were going to do on a date with me, to the movies, still not knowing who I was,” Mirage said, grumpily.
“I thought I’d figure it out along the way, okay! I just… got distracted by this Everything Evil thing.”
“Yes please let’s talk about that,” Chain Link butted in. “Please. Why are you here Ms. Pratt?”
I took a deep breath, trying to be less panicky. It didn’t work, but at least maybe I’d sound normal? “I wanted to leech off his power, but to do that I had to find him, so I helped Ley Line for a couple days and built a locator thingy—I don’t know what to call it—and it was supposed to take a couple weeks if I had to guess but it only took one day and so…” Breathe. “...so I got suited up with what I had and snuck in and he was sleeping so I thought I’d just sit outside for a few hours and get some of his power? I mean he’s Evil but he’s handy, no pun intended. But then I guess I fell asleep and when I woke up he was right there and very angry.”
Mirage glanced at Chain Link, before turning back to me. “Your power? You… absorb powers? What?”
“No? Well, at least I don’t think so. As far as I can tell, I build stuff related to people around me. Capes around me, I mean. Like I built a stupid laser pistol off of Powerplay but it didn’t fucking work—”
“Language,” Chain Link cut in.
“—and I probably would’ve died because I think Everything Evil was trying to murder me so thanks for saving me, I guess?”
“Are you tired?” Chainlink asked me.
“Not really, why?”
“Good. Because this is going to be a lot of paperwork.”
The PRT Building was quiet. This late at night, they kept half the lights off to save on power, and besides the duty officers and the overnight janitor riding the giant blue floor-cleaning machine, it was deserted.
All that had changed, thanks to me. Squad Five had gotten Everything Evil into containment in the basement, and the two heroes had escorted me inside and up into one of the conference rooms. I was still soaking wet and reeking of confoam, and the air was blowing against my wet clothes.
It was surreal, in a way. I could tell from their posture, from everyone’s posture and how they acted… they didn’t see me as Sara the intern anymore.
No, they saw me as a threat.
The door opened, and the Director walked in, alongside a tired-looking Ley Line with striped silkey pajamas for pants. I’d only seen the Director—one Jarrett Hibbert—once, for a quick handshake on my first day. He was tall, with short-cut hair and a grey, no-nonsense dad moustache. Wrinkles around his eyes suggested a happy, smiling disposition, but there was none of that tonight.
He and Ley sat across from me, with Chain Link lurking vaguely behind me and Mirage leaning back in the chair next to me, his armor flickering periodically to blend in with the leather of his chair. I started to say hi to Ley but he shook his head as soon as I opened my mouth.
“This isn’t a good situation, Ms. Pratt,” Director Hibbert spoke, his words measured. “First off, do you have a cape name?”
I started to speak, but only a squeak came out. I had to clear my throat before I continued. “No. I… hadn’t gotten that far.”
“It sets a bad precedent to refer to a cape by their civilian identity.”
“You all know who I am,” I said with a shrug. “And I don’t have any good ideas off the top of my head. I’ve never been good with names, sorry.”
Ley Line cleared his throat. “If I recall correctly, on your short visit with Squad Five you went by Knockoff?”
I paused. That felt like a lot longer than a week ago. And it is a pretty apt name, all things considered. “Sure, yeah. Knockoff.”
“A bit of a deprecating name, though?” Chain Link ‘spoke’.
“Like you have any room to judge on the name front, Chain,” Mirage quipped.
“Knockoff will do for now,” the Director spoke, his voice a little louder as he shot Mirage a look. He pulled his phone out and unlocked it, before sliding it across the table to me. It was a picture of my laser pistol. “You made this?”
“Yeah,” I said simply.
He made a vague swiping gesture, and the picture changed. I felt my face grow pale. It was Everything Evil’s chest, absolutely covered in black and red burns. I could see smoke still trailing off of them in the picture. “Then I presume you made this as well. Explain yourself.”
“It didn’t work properly!” My eyes were glued to the charred villain flesh. I’d done that. Me. Fuck.
“Let me make this clear. You took an untested piece of tinker equipment into the field and fired it, knowing it could cause harm. Even a claim to self-defense is tenuous, given you admitted to stalking him. Villain or no villain.”
“He wasn’t supposed to wake up,” I mumbled, forcing myself to look away. In hindsight, it seemed like a halfassed excuse. “And then he woke up and, you know, did the whole let me cut off your hands thing.”
“I want to understand why on earth you would stalk him in the first place, Knockoff. Because this is only the tip of the iceberg for the mountain of shit you’re in. You were a PRT intern. I shouldn’t have to spell out how wrong it is for a cape to be in the PRT.”
“It’s my power,” I paused, clearing my throat. “As far as I can tell, I build stuff based off the capes around me. That stupid laser pistol was from Powerplay, and I found Everything Evil using Ley Line’s power.” I shot the cape in question an apologetic, nervous smile. He didn’t seem too happy with me at the moment.
“And that, by God, lead you to going after a psychopath? Instead of, say, doing anything along the lines of telling us? You should’ve been in the Wards, Knockoff, not running around getting yourself killed, and others killed alongside you.”
“I know that now! I just... I don’t want to lose this job. I love it here, I mean. It’s nice. Well, was nice. I guess I fucked that up too. Sorry.”
Director Hibbert closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he looked at me again, he felt calmer. “I understand that the question I’m about to ask is sensitive. Believe me, I would not in any ordinary circumstance ask this, but answering could help your position. You aren’t, however, legally obligated to answer. How long ago did you trigger?”
I couldn’t help but see every cape in the room, Chain Link excluded, stiffen up at that. Ley even scooted his chair a tiny bit away from the Director. “Last weekend. The third, I mean. Is that… bad?”
“A week. Dear God. Knockoff, I hope for your sake you understand the position you’re in. You’ve been through a traumatic experience. We’re willing to… ease up in light of this. But regardless, I’m afraid I have only two paths for you. Juvie, or Wards.”
“Wards,” I said quickly. What the fuck kind of choice was that? Even if they were kinda assholes to me, I read fanfiction, I knew what happened in prison.
The Director nodded. “You’re going to be on probation for the foreseeable future. I might even advise a transfer—”
“No!” I shouted. “I can’t move. My parents would actually murder me. Like, for realsies. Except not for realsies, I mean. But Portland is my home.”
“...I’ll take that into consideration. In the meantime, you should get some rest. I’m afraid you’ll have to stay here until the details are finalized. Your parents have to be notified, but I’ll leave it up to you unless prefer to leave it up to us.”
“I can call them, it’s fine.” That wasn’t a stressful thought at all. Hey Mom, hey Dad, I’m a cape now and I’ve already almost killed someone. What’s for dinner?
Director Hibbert picked up his phone, and gestured at the capes—the other capes—to follow him out. Mirage gave my shoulder a squeeze. Ley Line didn’t even look at me.
The door shut behind them. I pulled out my phone, staring blankly at the cracked screen.
I was a cape. Fuck, I was going to be a Ward. I hated the Wards. Well, hate was a strong term, but only one of them had ever been nice to me since I was hired—
Sara, now is not a good time to think about Recoil.
Nope. Not thinking about her. Not thinking about how she’d been shipped off after the Deputy Director had developed a hate-on for her. Not thinking about how that was partially my fault. Nope. I had more important things to do, like tell my parents I was a cape.
I glanced at the phone. My lockscreen photo was still the selfie of us at Pride. Fuck. Fuck! So much for not thinking about her.
Maybe it was for the best. She’d stopped responding to my texts—not that they were anything special; we were just friends—and last I heard she’d been sent out east, to babysit one of the quarantine sites.
I unlocked the phone, pulled up the actual phone calling-people app, hit the button for Dad’s phone. He’d take it easier. I heard the dial tone… and then I hung up.
I had to think about what I was going to say. I couldn’t just open up with Hey I’m a cape. Could I? No, that would be weird. But was there a way for it to not be weird?
My phone rang. Dad, calling back. I swallowed the terror in my throat and answered.
“Sara, it’s Dad. Is everything okay?” Oh god, he sounded worried. Really worried. What was I going to say? What the fucking hell— “Sara?”
“H-hey Dad, how’s it going?”
“Sara, where the hell are you? We’ve been worried sick.”
I took a deep breath. “Well, um. I’m at work.”
“It’s two o'clock in the morning! Why—”
“Dad I’m a cape.” AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.
There was silence on the other end.
“Dad, are you there?”
Chapter 4: Orientation
I’d done all this before.
The tour. Seeing where Image was and where the PRT squads hung out, all of it. Administration, the cafeteria, Protectorate offices…
It all felt different now, though. Like a weird dream I couldn’t wake up from.
I didn’t have a costume yet, only a makeshift mask (because it wasn’t like the entire office knew who I was), and a new ID, this one without a picture and “Knockoff” for a name. I still had my old one, at this point simply as a cover and for the discount train fare.
My power buzzed in the back of my head. It was something I’d become more and more aware of lately; I could get a general idea of how many capes were around me based on how erratic the thoughts became. The entire Ward and Protectorate teams were here today, along with some of the Wards from the Medford office for a city patrol. Needless to say, that part of my brain was currently in the back of my head, coked out and twitching.
“Knockoff?” Jack asked, poking my shoulder. He was the “cape” HR guy, apparently his job was to do everything by the book even if I’d done this before. Sorry Knockoff, PRT Manual 18 specifies under part 2.3 subsection A that upon onboarding all new parahuman employees be given a full tour of facilities they have access to. Kill me.
“Hi,” I said, shaking my head to gather my thoughts. We were standing in front of a secure set of double doors. “Sorry, just distracted.”
“Well, this is the last thing,” he said with a reassuring smile, pressing his ID into the reader and getting his eyeball scanned. There was a beep, and five or so seconds later the double doors clicked open. He pulled one open, gesturing for me to enter. “Your new home away from home.” The Wards HQ. Fifth floor. I’d been here before once or twice, when the Wards had needed something. Usually I’d kept my head down to escape as fast as possible, you know, to escape all the… Wardiness.
Now, though, I could get a good look. Historic early-20th-century brick complemented with the latest innovations in excessive wall-mounted screens and LED lights. An ornate pressed-tin ceiling high above, centered below it was a weird combination of a living room and a war room. The kind of room where you were NASA and had to launch a rocket at 3:00, but had a video game tournament at 4:00, and a ballroom dance at 5:00.
And then there were the Wards. Hotshot, Hypothermia, Magnum Opus, Powerplay, and Mirage… and me, I guess. Fuck, I was a Ward now. That wasn’t unsettling at all.
“Sticking with Knockoff, huh?” Hotshot said, walking over and offering a handshake. He was the captain of the team, and certainly always acted the part. Recoil and I had always thought he was full of himself. Plus, his stupid sunglasses meant I couldn’t see his eyes, and I was always a bit uncomfortable with that.
“It fits,” I replied simply, returning the handshake. His grip was strong, just shy of being too much.
“Well, you already know the team, right?” He gestured at the rest of the Wards. Mirage gave me a weird little wave, the rest just looked at me. Great.
“Uh, yeah, I guess.”
“Great! Well I’ll show you the HQ then, since I know for a fact you haven’t gotten that far,” Hotshot said with a grin, leading me away. The rest of the Wards stayed behind.
The Wards HQ was most of the fifth floor, and over the next half hour I got to learn all about the wonderful amenities. Kitchen, laundry room, showers, pool (that Hypothermia wasn’t allowed to use), sparring room (that, incidentally, Hypothermia also wasn’t allowed to use), offices, you name it. There were even bedrooms for everyone, although most had homes to go home to—
“You can just use Recoil’s room, until we get the boxes cleared out of one of the others!”
“Yeah, she’s out of town for a few months, I’m sure she won’t mind. That’s okay with you, right? We haven’t ever had more than six Wards, so all the other rooms are storage right now.”
He took my internal screaming as external agreement. “Okay, cool!” He opened the door to Recoil’s room, and held it open for me. “Why don’t you get settled in and be ready in about… fifteen? We’re heading out to do some training, you should totally come with!”
Not knowing what to do, I stepped into her room as Hotshot wandered off. It was… chaos was a good word. Well-managed chaos, though. Like a Van Gogh painting, or something. Some cute posters on the wall next to the door, I got the feeling Recoil would’ve been shy about the rest of the team seeing them. Her desk was littered with little metal statues among the chaos, and I could see a note-filled cookbook in one of the open drawers.
How the fuck was I supposed to get settled in when I was in someone else’s room? And I had nothing of my own besides a temporary mask and an ID card?
I sat down on the bed, looking around at the anarchy. Fuck. I didn’t even know what was going on with Recoil. Was she alive, even? Probably, I felt like that would’ve come up in conversation. Her phone had been dead the last few weeks, or at least, I’d tried to call and it’d gone straight to voicemail.
I found myself pushing the button on my phone. Holding it to my ear. Maybe this time I’d finally leave a message.
It started ringing.
Fuck! Shit! I was just going to leave a message, not actually… what if she was in a fight, or hiding from a supervillain, or—
“Hello?” Yep, that was her. Lana.
“Hi,” I squeaked, not sure what else to say. Why couldn’t it have gone to voicemail? Not like I would’ve known what to say then, either.
“Shit, Sara? Is that you?” She sounded excited. Excited?
“Hi yep it’s me!” Fuck fuck what do I say? “How’s, uh, Indiana?”
“I’m not in Indiana.”
“Oh.” God dammit Sara. “Uhhh…”
There was a laugh on the other end. “It’s good to hear from you though, this place is fukken bullshit. How’s Portland?”
I leaned back on the bed, resisting the urge to groan. Of course she’d ask. Why wouldn’t she ask? That was, like, phone conversation 101. What the fuck was I supposed to say?
“Sara? You there?”
“Yeah, hi. Um… it’s okay. Things are… well, the city’s quieter than usual. It’s been hot but today’s not so bad.”
“I miss it. Well, except the assholes. Fuck those guys.” She paused. When we’d hung out, it was usually a lot of silence. Why fill it with pointless words? Just hanging out was always nice, and Lana was always cool to hang out with.
After a moment of peaceful-seeming silence filled with internal panic, Lana spoke again. “So I heard on the news someone captured Everything Evil? Something about a new Ward, too.”
Fuck god dammit shit, since when did Recoil follow the news? Shit!
“Oh yeah, that’s a thing,” I ventured cautiously. Please change the topic.
“Have you met them? Are they cool? Or just another asshole like the rest of ‘em?”
“I uh…” I have to tell her. Fuck, why is this somehow harder than telling my PARENTS oh my god.
“Sara? You there? Fucking phone.”
“Yeah! So it’s me.” AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
“What the fuck are you on about?”
“I’m the new Ward.”
There was silence. “...oh. I see.” She didn’t sound happy. Not angry, or sad, just… some emotion I couldn’t put words on. It wasn’t a good emotion though.
“You okay, La—Recoil?”
Triggered. It’d always struck me as a weird way to word it. “Yeah. I’m, uh, a Tinker, like you. When you get back we could Tinker together and stuff, y’know? I don’t really know what I’m doing, so it’d be nice to have someone who knows their shit.”
“Sara… fuck, I’m sorry. I should’ve fucking been there.” There was a loud sound on the other end, like someone punching something.
“Why? I mean, there’s nothing you could’ve done. It’s fine. I mean. Uh. Like, I wish you were here too, but it’s not, like…” I trailed off, not knowing what to say. What could I say?
“Dumbass, it’s not…” She trailed off too. “Fucking hell, I can’t do this over the phone. We’re going to have a very long talk when I get back. So you’re a Ward? Do your parents know?”
I grimaced. “Yeah. They’re… dealing with it. It was a long weekend. They had a lot of questions I couldn’t answer, and kept pestering me even though I just didn’t fucking have the energy for it and just wanted to sit up in my room and work on stuff, but… yeah. Sorry, venting a little there I guess. How are you holding up?”
She snorted. “Machine Army’s fukken scary. Pictures on the news don’t do it justice. HQ is bullshit, my team’s mostly assholes, and my boss is a hentai monster who’d give Cooper a run for her money.”
“Mostly assholes?” I asked. That was a very un-Recoilish thing for her to say.
“Maybe. Another Tinker here. At first I thought he was just another tryhard like Magnum Opus but…”
“But he’s cool?”
“Wouldn’t go that far. He’s alright.”
Alright was pretty much cool in my book, but sure. “That’s nice. Hey, before I forget, um, this kinda came up and it’s weird but I thought I’d run it past you even though nobody else did…”
“Why do I feel like I’m going to hate this.”
“They, uh, assigned me your room. At the HQ, I mean. Is that…”
“You’ve been sleeping in my bed without me,” her voice was deadpan. Why did my face feel so hot?
“No! I mean this literally just happened! Like, I just sat down in here and called you. It’s… weird.”
“Well fuck you too, asshole. I like my room.”
“No! Not like that. The situation, I mean. Your room is… messy, but cute. Very Recoilish, I mean. The posters are cool too.”
“Aaaaaaaa take those down!”
“No they’re dorky and cute and you’ll have to come here and do it yourself.”
“Sara, I’m—” she was cut off by a loud sound on the other end. “Hey I’ve gotta go, Machine Army bullshit. I’ll call you later?”
“Sure—” I was interrupted by the call ended beep. Okay.
I gave the room one last glance as I returned my phone to my pocket. Talking to Recoil had made this a little less weird. It was still weird, but… y’know. I slid off the bed, smoothing the PRT-issue bedspread and stepping out into the hallway. The Wards—the rest of the Wards—were chatting in the main room, by the sounds of it. I made my way down the hall, poking my head through. “Hey.”
The conversation stopped.
“Hey Knockoff,” Hotshot said. “You ready to head out?”
“I mean…” I glanced down at myself. “I don’t exactly have… anything? So yeah, I guess.”
“Don’t sweat it, that’s probably a good thing. You Tinker types always get used to your tech, but it’s good practice to get some fighting in without, just in case it breaks or something.”
Magnum Opus punched his shoulder from across the table. “Give her a break, asshole. You don’t have to throw her into a spar, without tech, on her first day.”
“It’s fine,” I butted in. As little as I wanted to do this, I was supposed to be a part of this team, and at some point I had to rip the band-aid off and actually try, right? “I can go. Can’t promise I’ll be any good, though.”
“You’ll do fine,” Mirage said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Yes, I’m sure the useless girl with no tech, no powers, and no fighting ability will do perfectly well against the elite squad of child soldiers. Okay, dude. Instead of saying all that, I simply said, “Thanks.”
“Ugh, get a room, you two,” Powerplay moaned.
Mirage laughed, “Oh, like you and Hotshot don’t—”
Hotshot interrupted. “Okay! Let’s head out.”
Oh, okay. I nodded, and followed them out the door to the elevator… the nice elevator. In the garage, we all piled into a PRT vehicle, with Hotshot driving, Mirage in the passenger seat, and the rest of us in the back seats. We set off. Mirage was staring out the window at traffic, Magnum Opus adjusting the tinkertech gilding on her armor, Powerplay was texting, and Hypothermia was reading a book. And then there was me. Good ol’ Sara, a.k.a. Knockoff. Awkwardly glancing around and twiddling my thumbs. I couldn’t even work on my Tinker stuff because that bit of my head was still dying of sensory overload from so many capes nearby. I’d need to figure that out at some point, since it seemed that I’d be around at least five others for the foreseeable future.
The Monday morning Portland traffic nightmare had thankfully died off, so we made good pace. Our destination was one of the many semi-remote locations the PRT had secured, since the more-destructive elements of Portland’s superhero teams meant that they couldn’t really use their powers downtown. In this case, we were heading to a government-owned island in the middle of the Columbia creatively called Government Island.
It was a short, fifteen-minute drive, and then we were there, pulled off the shoulder of the interstate next to a gate in the chain-link fence. I couldn't help but wonder how that looked to the SUV-driving commuters heading up to Vancouver. Five bona fide superheroes hopping out of a PRT vehicle on the side of the road, followed by some girl in business casual with a domino mask.
The island was five miles long, and maybe a mile wide, mostly trees and fields that might've been farms a hundred years ago. While Hotshot was fiddling with a keyring to unlock the padlock and Powerplay was hovering over the fence with a smirk, I glanced around. There were little dents in the ground all over, some still half-filled with last night's rainfall. That would've been Hypothermia’s power. Other bits looked like a giant had stubbed his toe on the ground, kicking up bits. I wasn't sure, but that struck me as Scarab, one of the Protectorate heroes.
“There we are,” Hotshot finally said, sticking the right key into the lock and holding the gate open for the rest of us. He gave me what was probably supposed to be a reassuring smile. “We try to head out at least once a week, do some training as a team. The rest of the days, those of us with less-destructive powers will spar at HQ.”
“‘Those of us’,” Hypothermia quipped. “You can just say it’s me, I don’t mind.”
“It’s not just you. Recoil had some nasty stuff and by the sounds of it Knockoff here is continuing the tradition.”
I winced. Thanks for that reminder, asshole. “I didn’t know it would do that,” I said quietly.
“Hey, that fucker deserved it. Just turn it down a little for the guys who don’t decapitate their victims, you know?”
I didn’t answer him, instead just walking through the gate and waiting with the others while he closed it behind us. There was a halfassed road through the field, the kind that was just two tire tracks with grass between, and once the gate was shut, we all headed down it.
“So, Knockoff, we try and mix it up every week, but usually it’ll be two teams against each other, doing something. If the Protectorate joins us we’ll go against each other, but normally we draw straws to keep it random.”
“We actually have six people now, so the teams’ll be fair!” Hypothermia butted in excitedly. “Well, I mean, you don’t have any tech but…”
Thanks for pointing that out.
“This week we’ll keep it simple. There’s a barn, just on the other side of those trees over there. Short straws defend, long straws have to capture it. Attackers win if they get all three of their team without a defender in with ‘em.” Hotshot pulled some straws out of his pocket and shuffled them around in his hands. Seriously, who pulled Actual Straws when they said pulling straws? Whatever.
Once he was done and we couldn’t tell which were cut short, we all grabbed one. I winced as I pulled a long straw. How the fuck was I supposed to help attack three superheroes? Especially if they were...
“Okay,” Hotshot called out. “Hype, Magnum, Mirage, see ya. We’ll give you ten minutes or so?”
Great, I’d be fighting two tinkers, one of whom could turn invisible, and Little Miss Property Damage. Woo. The trio wandered off, leaving me with Hotshot and Powerplay.
“So what’s the plan?” I asked, hoping it involved me not being involved.
Hotshot glanced between Powerplay and me. “Knockoff, I don’t want you going against Magnum Opus or Hypothermia without tech, that’s a great way to get hurt. I’m gonna have you deal with Mirage, don’t worry about winning, just get him distracted and away from the barn. Heather—” that must’ve been Powerplay’s name? He was just dropping it like that? Okay. “—you’ll take on Hypothermia. Use your lasers and keep your distance, try and draw her out. I’ll get Magnum Opus, I’m the only one who can tank her hits.”
“I can totally handle her!” Powerplay interjected. “And what’s the deal using my name in front of the kid, huh?”
Is this what death feels like?
“Okay, sure. And while you’re dealing with her, Hype’s raining frozen hellfire down on us two from above. And Sara is a part of our team now, so she’ll get everyone’s names eventually.”
“I don’t recall Recoil’s name, Dutch.”
“Wait,” I cut in. “You’re Dutch Boyle? That rumor’s actually true?” I’d always dismissed the schoolyard rumors that the local rich kid douche with the old man name was Hotshot. Even if it fit, from what I’d heard of the guy.
“A little bit yeah. And Play, you know Recoil was a special case, not cool.” That’s one way to put it.
“Yeah, whatever dude,” Powerplay grumbled.
“So uh, we’ll hit them in ten minutes?” I asked, desperate to change the fucking conversation to anything else.
“We will hit them, you’ll try and distract Mirage,” Powerplay snarked. I was starting to get the impression she didn’t like me.
Hotshot gave her a glance. “Is there any particular reason you’re being a grade-A certified asshole today? You two got history or something?”
“Yeah, actually,” Play said. “To the first bit. Not the second. Which is part of the problem. This bitch doesn’t even know me and she decides to steal my power?”
“I didn’t steal your power!” I shouted. “I copied it, kinda. No stealing. At best, copyright violation of powers. Although I’d argue that fair-use applies in this case.”
They both stared at me for a second, before Powerplay broke in again. “You fucking nearly killed someone with my power! What if he would’ve actually died, and you didn’t get arrested? Who do you think they’d look for?”
“I wasn’t arrested!”
“Really? That’s your takeaway from what I said?”
“Both of you, shut the hell up?” Hotshut cut in. “Powerplay, she didn’t get to choose her power, give her a break. What happened happened. Knockoff, please don’t kill people and make it look like the original cape did it.”
“I’ve never done that?”
“Then it’ll be really easy to do.” He sighed. “Are we good?”
Powerplay glared at me some more. I met her eyes calmly. Well, I hope I looked calm. In reality my heart was pounding and I felt like shit, but y’know. Then she shrugged. “We’ll see.”
Fucking hell, this bitch. What would it take for her to be happy, me being brutally murdered by the fucking Slaughterhouse Nine? “I’ll take what I can get,” I said with a laugh.
Hotshot snorted, and pulled out his phone. The next few minutes passed awkwardly. I spent the time running up my data plan by looking at the Portland PHO board. Apparently there was some speculation on who I was. The PRT had released a simple statement, saying only that a new hero had captured Everything Evil and that they were joining the Wards. The vagueness that had always infuriated me back in the day, but right now it was a relief. I didn’t have a costume, or Tinkertech, or real powers, or anything else really. Being thrust into the limelight would be awful.
Hotshot’s phone rang. “Time’s up! Let’s kick some ass!” he shouted cheerfully, running off towards the trees while Powerplay leaped into the sky, her hands already beginning to glow gold. I ran to keep up, stuffing my stupid ID lanyard into my pocket to stop it hitting me in the face. I’d never exactly been athletic, and without the Everything Evil-induced adrenaline shots, I was breathing heavy by the time we made it far enough into the forestey bit that I could see a vague building shape through the woods. Hotshot was decent enough to jog alongside me, but Powerplay had shot ahead, the distinctive crackle of her handheld lasers flashing every which way, cutting through branches in a vain attempt to intercept Hypothermia, who was darting around the trees.
A golden-armored figure rose out of the underbrush in front of us. Magnum Opus. “Sara, go left and around!” Hotshot shouted, rushing towards her as a faint sheen covered his skin. I nodded, cutting to the side as him and Opus smashed into each other.
Fucking shit, my heart was pounding and all I’d done was see someone.
My sprinting took me around and through the growth, branches catching on my clothes. My shoes already felt thick with mud, but I ignored them. Mirage… if I were Mirage, where would I be? Fucking hell, who are you kidding Sara. Right. If I were Mirage I’d know what the hell to do. This was insane.
I slowed to a stop, listening to the thundering of Hypothermia and Magnum, the roar of Hotshot’s flares and the crackle of Powerplay’s lasers. It was like being in a war movie, except instead of kevlar and a machine gun, I had business casual and a smartphone, and everyone else had superpowers. The rear of the barn was directly in front of me, maybe fifty feet away, old rotting wood framed by a hole that I assume had had a door in it at one point. No Mirage to be seen, of course. That was his power, being unseen.
“Fuck it,” I said under my breath. I started walking towards the barn. Nothing happened, so I kept walking, pulling bits of twig out of my hair. Surely he’d show up if I just walked in?
Nope. I stepped through into the barn. It was empty, except for the smell of bird shit, old oil, and dust. There was some old straw on the ground, and a little loft with some 55-gallon drums. I sat down against the wall next to the back door, where I wasn’t exactly hidden but not a place somebody would look at right away. Or maybe they would, what the fuck did I know? The barn shook slightly as Hypothermia rocketed overhead, the air becoming frigid for just a heartbeat.
I pulled my knees up to my chest and sighed, and the sounds of fighting got quieter. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this. Was it too late to… not join the Wards? Like I could just ask Jack the useless HR guy to undo everything, right?
And then what, though? Director Hibbert had made it sound like it was my only option, other than jail. Fuck, I couldn’t go to jail. I had powers, so they’d put me in cape jail, with like supervillains and shit. I’d be murdered after ten minutes. I could run away and become a supervillain, maybe. Except that would mean hurting good people, unless I only attacked other supervillains. Would that make me a vigilante or something? Regardless, I’d still get attacked by heroes. I’d have to join a gang anyway, my power was useless without other people nearby. That’d mean joining the Elite, or the Teamsters, or the Burnside Street Gang. Maybe I could even join up with the Cascadians, eco-terrorism was kinda in nowadays wasn’t it?
The barn shuddered as a loud thump echoed outside, and spears of ice shot into the wall on one side. A second later there was pitter-pattering of dirt on the room. Hypothermia again. I jumped up, not sure what to do. Hide? Make a run for it? Fucking… whatever, fuck it.
I ran for the loft, taking the ladder up two rungs at a time, nearly throwing myself behind the leaking oil drums. A moment later, footsteps beneath me. I poked my head out to see Hypothermia, facing away. She sighed, and muttered something under her breath I couldn’t catch.
Is this my chance? I could just, like, surprise her, and save the day! Wherever Hotshot and Powerplay were, surely they’d make short work of Mirage and Magnum, with Hype out of the way… fuck it, what did I have to lose?
Slowly I pulled myself up to my feet, tiptoeing right to the edge. My heart was pounding, and everything felt tingly. It was an oddly-familiar feeling. In slow motion I could see the young Ward below me starting to turn around, and I realized I had to do it now before she saw me. So I jumped.
Her eyes met mine as I was in midair, about to tackle her to the ground. In glorious adrenaline-induced slow-motion I saw her eyes widen, saw her stance change… and then I landed on her. There was a loud roaring sound, and I felt a cold, colder than anything I’d ever experienced, filling me to the core. The only thing worse than the feeling of my eyeballs freezing under my eyelids was the roar, like sleeping under a speeding freight train where every car was full of rabid, horny, angry cheetahs. My stomach lurched, and I realized I was clinging onto Hypothermia, wanting nothing more than to upend my stomach onto her fur-lined combat armor. Then I felt the lurching stop, felt myself stop with it, and then I stopped being awake.
Someone was shouting. Distant footsteps coming my way like an approaching thunderstorm. I was cold, freezing, I couldn’t feel my extremities and I was fairly certain my eyelashes were covered in frost.
“Sara! Oh my god I’m sorry aaaaaaa!” the someone said, as the footsteps got closer. I opened my eyes, wincing at the burst of light searing my retinas away. Through my squinting, I could make out a Hypothermia-shaped outline, panicked eyes barely visible behind her helmet’s stupid visor-thing.
I groaned, shifting a little, which only caused agonizing spikes of cold to flare up. I was leaning on something, a tree maybe? It didn’t really matter.
“Just, um, stay still, okay?” Hypothermia asked, kneeling in front of me. “Jesus I’m sorry, you just scared me and I… I…”
In her defense, jumping out like that WAS kinda stupid.
“It’s fine,” I groaned, shifting again. I looked down at myself, and felt my heart sink. There were little icicles sticking out of my arms and legs and chest and everywhere really. I could see some red appearing around some of them as they melted. “Oh. What… what even happened?”
“You jumped out at me, and and and I panicked and sorta jumped except you were attached to me and then I stopped and you kept going and…” she took a deep breath. “Well, Mirage slowed you down some when you hit him so at least you’re not dead?”
“Woo,” I said, deadpan. “Wait, Mirage?”
“He was sorta between you and the, um, tree. He’s fine, don’t worry! Just grabbing the others.”
That made me groan. “It’s fine! I’m fine! We don’t need to make a scene!” Seriously, some cold weather was nothing compared to getting hit by a car. I started to push myself up, grimacing through the pain.
“Sara! What the fuck? Stop!”
“I’m fine!” I shouted, wheezing as I finally pulled myself to my feet, just in time for the rest of the team to crash through the dead leaves and twigs and bushes. I gave them a wave “Hey guys.”
“Knockoff!” Hotshot shouted. “What the fuck happened to you?”
I grimaced. “Uh, long story short, I tried to ambush Hypothermia.”
“You what? Why? Just… why?”
“Because you said to distract Mirage but I couldn’t find him so I just walked into the barn and sat down and then she showed up and I figured, y’know, why not?” Yeah, it definitely sounded stupid when I said it like that.
Hotshot was quiet for a second, and then he snorted. “You really just wanted to be the hero or something, huh?”
“I just joined a hero team! That’s literally in my job description!”
“You two are both idiots,” Powerplay cut in, stepping forward. There was a faint trace of a smile on her face, which I took either as a sign of victory or, more likely, vindictive grinning at seeing me filled with ice-flavored shrapnel. “Sara, I’ve got to fly you to the hospital, so please don’t make this weird.”
“Make what wei—” I was cut off as she swept me off my feet into a bridal carry, making every shard of ice embedded in me shift and flare up with pain. To be fair, if I wasn’t busy trying not to cry I probably would’ve said something snarky about it.
“Wait!” I managed, thinking quickly. “Um… can I… can I talk to you and Hotshot in private? No offense to you guys, I mean. It’s just, um…” I trailed off.
Hotshot glanced at me, then at Powerplay. “Can it wait?”
“Alright, fine,” he sighed, and started walking away. Powerplay followed with me in her arms, floating slightly off the ground to not jostle me.
“Over in the barn.”
He adjusted course, and we pushed through the forest, back towards the dilapidated structure. “Sa… Knockoff, you really should get to a doctor. Are you sure…?”
“I’ll be fine, I’ve been through worse. Inside, please. I’ll explain.” I glanced back over Powerplay’s shoulder. Mirage and Magnum were talking to Hypothermia in quiet, reassuring-looking tones. The shadow of the barn fell over us, and we stepped into the frost-and-icicle-filled barn. It definitely looked a lot worse for wear, I guess that was my fault.
“Okay. What’s up?” Hotshot said, turning to face us.
I grinned. “Well, we won.”
“What,” Powerplay said flatly.
“Our team is now all in the barn, and none of them! That means we win, right?”
There was silence from the other two. Awkward silence.
“Knockoff, you’re a fucking idiot.”
Chapter 5: Stranger Protocols
“Okay Knockoff, let’s see how this one looks instead.”
I repressed the urge to sigh. Day One in the Wards: Sparring, one billion stitches, and a mountain of paperwork. Now we were on Day Two, which apparently was the PR day, which was surprising. Apparently most of the intern training and paperwork was actually identical to Wards stuff, so I was a ways ahead.
Unfortunately, none of the intern onboarding dealt with the Image department’s little shop of horrors.
I stepped out of the changing room, walking out. Rob, the head of our Image department, immediately shook his head, his dark-colored goatee conveying displeasure somehow. “Ugh, that’s awful. Next?”
A helper minion handed me another costume. After twenty minutes, it felt like the mountain of options wasn’t getting any smaller. Repressing that urge to sigh once again, I stepped back into the changing room.
That was my morning. Eventually, after we’d both exercised our costume veto powers excessively, we were left with a Knockoff costume that wasn’t half-bad, and I was shooed away while Image rushed to turn out a prototype. Then I was sent off to Medical, for a very stern-looking woman to assess the healing rate of my one billion stitches all while making semi-snarky comments about how I was now known as the Ward who’d somehow managed to get hurt prior to having a baseline physical done. It was nice to know I was getting a reputation already.
“Knockoff?” Nurse Ratched’s inspection was interrupted by Magnum Opus’s British accent entering the infirmary. “Hey, we’ve got the thing?”
“Oh, yeah, cool!” I exclaimed, jumping off the exam table. “Sorry, I guess I forgot here let’s go before I uh forget again!” I grabbed her hand and dragged her out into the hallway, ignoring the angry medical sounds from the nurse.
“Wha—Knockoff, what even—”
“Thank you for saving me,” I said, cutting her off. “I thought that was never going to end. What’s up?”
“Oh, right, no problem. We were going to get you set up in the workshop?”
“Sure, yeah!” I nodded, and she lead the way to the elevator. It was a bit… strange, to be honest, seeing her out of her armor. She was tall, with short-cut red-orange hair, and behind a generic around-the-office domino mask, emerald green eyes. I wasn’t a fan of self-inserts, but I couldn’t help but wonder if one day someone would make a Magnum Opus x Knockoff shipfic.
We took the elevator upstairs to the Wards section of the building. The rest of the team was out and about, I heard the telltale sounds of a punching bag being beaten into submission. That was probably Powerplay. No sign of the rest. We reached a set of reinforced double doors, and with the traditional ID swipe and retinal scan, Magnum opened the doors and gestured for me to enter. Inside was… wow.
A high-ceilinged room, lit by narrow windows and the glare of hanging lamps. There was a thick smell of manual labor, of oil and smoke and ozone. Everything was a mess, equipment everywhere. Saws and welding stuff and a station for circuit board stuff and computers and a 3d-printer and a million other things I couldn’t figure the use of just yet.
“Welcome to our little hideout,” Magnum said, opening a battered mini-fridge and grabbing a couple sodas from the inside, tossing one at me. “Well, not really a hideout, but I haven’t seen any of the others in here for months. So y’know.”
“I love it,” I replied, looking around with wide eyes. I could kinda see glimmers of everyone else’s style in the mess, the cluttered disarray that for some reason reminded me of Mirage, the precise chaos of Magnum, and underneath it all a faint patina of what had been Recoil, her memories being slowly eroded away by stealth tech and disposable megaprojects. It was bittersweet, in a way, but still amazing.
“Come check this out, then,” the other Tinker replied to me with a grin, punctuating her words with the sharp crack of her soda can opening. She led me through the mess to a heavy side door which she pulled open.
“What?” was all I could say as I stepped out. They had a rooftop balcony. How the fuck did they have a rooftop balcony? “How the fuck do you have a rooftop balcony?”
Magnum laughed. “Some of my metalwork gets the workshop too hot, so I’ll bring my forge stuff out here. Mirage has a cloaking field set up so nobody notices the corner of the building missing.”
I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t been standing here myself. It wasn’t large, by any means, and half the space was taken by some junk pulled right out of a 1600s blacksmith shop. The rest of it was set aside for a plastic table with a big umbrella sticking out of the center, a couple chairs, and atop some cinderblocks was a little grill, the kind you’d stick on the tailgate of a truck.
“Well, all I can say is wow.” I was grinning, less because of the view and more because having a hidden-in-plain-sight hideout like this was the most superhero thing I’d ever heard of. I cracked open my soda and took a sip. “Seriously, this is so cool, how the hell does nobody know?”
“We slip the Director a burger or sausage whenever he drops by, and he ignores all the policy violations. One of the maintenance guys was gonna rat on us to the papers but we’ve got dirt on him.”
“...Dirt?” I was afraid to ask.
“Mirage went down there to see about borrowing a soldering iron when his broke, and walked in on the guy snorting a line off his desk.”
“Wait, what the fuck?” I shot back, my voice raising. Did she seriously…? “You’re blackmailing one of the staff to keep your little hangout from being front page news?”
“Yeah, we are,” Magnum said with a snort. “After he tried to blackmail us first, you bet we are. All us capes have little things like this, of some sort or another, and so does half the staff. It might sound like overreaction to you, but if people look into something innocent, maybe they’ll start looking into shit that really gets people in trouble.” I started to shake my head, but she kept talking, resting a hand on my shoulder. “Heroes gotta stick together, our team’s gotta stick together, and most importantly, us Tinkers gotta stick together. Have each other’s backs.”
“Just like you had Recoil’s?” I snapped, pushing her hand off me before what I’d blurted out even hit my ears. Fuck. That wasn’t something I’d wanted to bring up, not like this at least.
Magnum took a step back, glaring at me. “If you must know, yes, actually. Especially Recoil’s.”
I returned her glare, distinctly aware of my heart pounding. You know what? Fuck it. “Yeah? You know we were friends, right? We talked, a lot. Stuff like how you and Mirage treated her. And now she’s in fucking Eagleton dealing with the Machine Army.”
She shook her head, keeping her eyes shut for a second. “Yes, she is. It’s fucked. But you want to know something, Knockoff? Mirage and I messed up, but we tried to fix things. We respected her choices, and both tried to help her with the Deputy Director. Recoil didn’t listen, so she got kicked off and we nearly went with her.”
I opened my mouth to shoot back something… and closed it. Maybe she was lying, but by her tone… probably not. I was still mad at her, but she was right, and now I had nothing to be mad at her at. The worst feeling. “Okay,” I said simply.
“Sorry… I know you two were close. Just know that we tried, the entire team did.” Magnum shook her head. “Are we square?”
“Yeah. Sorry, I shouldn’t have… whatever.” I shrugged, wiping at my face. “We’re good though.”
“Alright then. Come on, I have just the thing for you… an entire workshop full of stuff to make things with.” she gave me a semi-reassuring grin. “I know underneath that pretending-to-be-an-intern-still facade, there’s a Tinker.”
I rolled my eyes. I mean, to be honest, actually making something would be nice. Things had been piling up in my head lately anyway, given that I’d spent basically every waking moment around other capes. I gave her a forced-ish smile. “I guess, sure, yeah. Why not?”
We gravitated back indoors, and she showed me where everything was, and finally I was able to just sit back in my head and let my power do the work. Seeing the little bits and pieces of Recoil scattered around had brought me new inspiration, and I found myself working on a new weapon to replace the laser pistol that was, as far as I was aware, never going to be seen again. A mix of Hypothermia and Powerplay, maybe? Like lasers, but they also exploded into ice shrapnel. How the hell would that even work?
I needed armor, too. Magnum Opus was kind enough to give me one of her old armor suits as a base to work on, and even if she couldn’t reuse it, it was still a good basis to begin with. A little bit of Chain Link could work nice, and maybe some Mirage to add stealth. Hotshot’s shields would probably be a good addition, too, if I could figure out how they worked…
I looked over. Magnum was standing by the door, looking at me. “Hi,” I said hesitantly, setting down the piece of laser pistol I’d been poking at.
“Lunchtime, come on, let’s get something to eat.”
“Lunch?” I pulled out my phone. 1pm. Oh. Well then. “Oh, lunch. Sorry, I guess I didn’t even notice.”
Magnum snorted. “Happens to the best of us. If I’m by myself I set an alarm, it’s rather easy to get lost in the fugue.”
I stood up, making a quick attempt to tidy everything up so it looked less like I was a deranged lunatic making pipe bombs under a bare bulb, before following Magnum outside. “Cafeteria? What is it today?”
“I don’t plan on finding out. I got tired of it after the first year, so I just wander around until I find something,” she replied as we headed down the hallway towards the common room. “You… don’t have your costume yet, do you?”
“They said to come back later in the day, I guess they’re making it right now?” I wasn’t sure how the hell Image managed to turn stuff around that fast, especially when they had an entire state to deal with… although it wasn’t like Oregon had much going on besides Portland. I’m sure the, like, two capes sitting on their asses in Astoria would disagree, but whatever.
“Right,” Magnum pulled her mask off and tossed it on a table. “Civvies it is then.”
I nodded, and set my temporary excuse of a mask next to hers. “Right, um… I probably shouldn’t call you Magnum…” I trailed off, not sure how I was supposed to ask a girl what her name was.
“Oh… okay?” What the fuck kind of name was Flick?
“And you’re still Sara, yeah? No secret name changes?”
“Yeah. Sara and Flick, on a quest to get lunch, yeah!” I grinned. Flick stared at me for a second before turning to the elevator. Can’t win ‘em all.
We headed down to the lobby and walked out, Flick in normal human clothes and me still rocking business casual because nobody’d told me I could dress like a human again instead of an intern. Was that just, like, a thing I could start doing now? Shit, could I have been doing that the entire time? I had always just figured, y’know, look like an office drone since that was like ninety percent of my job. Except now my job was to be a superhero, and if the other Wards were any indication I needed either rich as fuck parents or ten billion rips in my clothes. Maybe it was a way to keep secret identities secret? Flick looked like a ginger version of the type of person who said ‘hella’ unironically, except British or whatever she was. Scottish? Irish? They all had the same fucking accent, for all I knew she was literally the Queen’s granddaughter or something. Did that make her, like, Count Flick of England or something?
But that didn’t answer the root question of what I was supposed to wear. Like, could I just show up with normal jeans and a t-shirt? That was okay, right? Maybe a skirt from time to time, mix it up? Except all my shirts were cape-themed and everything else was too fancy. It’d be way too weird to show up at the PRT building wearing my teammates’ branded merch. Like, hey it’s Knockoff, rocking today’s latest fashion, an old Ley Line t-shirt and fuzzy Hypothermia socks! But everything else I had was, like, far too fancy.
By the time I’d finished having an existential crisis about the one theme of my wardrobe now being taboo, Flick had dragged me into a little pizzeria, one in fact I’d been side-eyeing on my way home from work lately. It was like she’d read my mind. It wasn’t too fancy or too modest, and thankfully the hipster nonsense that dominated Portland hadn’t infected it yet. Just one thing, simple, delicious pizza.
We ordered, and by the time I’d filled up our plastic red cups from the soda machine (Dr Pepper for me, and root beer for Flick), she was setting a pair of grease-laden paper plates down at the cleanest of the vacant tables.
“Here!” I said, plopping down across from her and sliding over her cup. I’d gone with a classic pepperoni and sausage, and my teammate had a slice of Hawaiian.
I grabbed the shaker of parmesan, giving my generous slice a heavy coating of delicious cheese dandruff. I watched in silent amazement as it absorbed the grease coating the top of the slice. There were some spots where it couldn’t win the battle against the grease, clumps of cheese fallen into tiny lakes of fat formed by cooking pepperoni curling upwards into a delicious-smelling contact lens-shaped pop of taste.
It was too big a slice for my tiny hands to handle, of course, so I picked up the entire plate and took a bite out of the tip of pizza overhanging. It was as good as I expected. No, better. Weeks without the delicious nectar of pizza had left me starved for savory, but even on a diet made entirely of pizza, I was certain with all my heart that it would still stand out. Thick, bready crust, just a hint of sweetness, with a liberal coating of cornmeal underneath to give it texture. Just enough firmness, but not enough to burn or crunch, the upper portion a mantle of moistness expertly baked.
And the sauce! Oh god, the sauce, sandwiched between the crust and that wonderful patina of melted mozzarella. It was spicy, rich tomato intermingling with a bite of pepper on my tongue. It would’ve been too much to handle if not for the slightest tang of honey to act as a sweetener. Most pizza places were stingy with sauce, but here, it was a compromise between conspicuous consumption and conservative quantity. Not so much that it compromised the adhesive properties of the sauce and allowed the cheese and toppings of the rest of the pizza to slide off with your bite. And the toppings, spicy pepperoni perfectly sizzled, atop a bed of browned mozzarella, cooked just past the point where shreds of cheese lose their identity and become a intermingling orgy of cheese.
It was the best pizza I’d ever eaten in my entire life.
“Sara, are you alright?” Flick asked, looking at me with a concerned but humored smile.
“I read a fic once. It was an AU where Riftwatcher opened a pizzeria because in all his alternate universes, none made a pie good enough for him. When I saw it posted to PHO, I was so excited, but then I read the first chapter. The author, he never described the pizza. He just said it was good. It was such a disappointment. After he blueballed me like that, I barely had it in me to see if it got better. The most I did was skim ahead a few chapters, and see if maybe, just maybe, he redeemed himself. Sweet. Amazing. Delicious. Good. That was it.” I looked her in the eye, my heart filled with conviction I hadn’t felt in a long time. “That author let me down harder than I’ve ever been let down, but now it’s okay. Now I know what that pizza tastes like, and it is beautiful.”
Flick was silent for a bit, staring at me for a moment before she spoke again. “You’re a bit weird in the head, you know that?”
“I get that a lot. It’s hella good pizza though, we should eat here more.” I took a sip of my soda, and she rolled her eyes.
“Don’t worry, they deliver too.”
A couple weeks into my short-lived career as a PRT intern, I’d gone down to Bend with our Image department to help with the announcement of their latest Ward. Of course, by “latest” I mean second, but that’s not the point. The point is, I got to see firsthand what it was like for a new hero to be thrust into the limelight. He nailed it, of course. I wish I could’ve said the same for myself.
There’s not much to it, really. Some bigwigs say some words, Director Hibbert makes me do an oath thingy, and then I give a thirty-second speech that Rob the ever-vigilant Image director had drilled into me. All I had to do was not fuck up the stupid speech, right?
On the bright side, only one TV station had shown up, and the mayor had been busy playing golf so I’d only embarrassed myself in front of his spokeswoman.
“You did fine Knockoff, really!” Rob reassured me backstage, giving me a pat on the shoulder. “I’m sure they’ll edit the dead air out for us. And the ad-libbed part. Next time just stick to what I give you though, okay?”
“I forgot what I was supposed to say!” I shouted, tearing off my mask (oh no, suddenly the entire Image department knew my secret identity, the horror!) and plopping down on the nearest chair not occupied by a stack of magazines or someone doing actual work instead of wearing a costume and pretending to be a superhero.
“Hey, shit happens, at least you sounded pretty cool. Other than the ‘ums’. And the awkward silence. But we can work on that, don’t worry.”
“Don’t worry? Don’t worry? I totally fucked that up!” I shouted, feeling the mid-speech panic attack starting to return, icy tendrils of death clenching around my heart. “Can I just, like, not fuck something up today?”
“Hey!” It was the voice of Mirage as he strolled into the Image department, followed by the rest of the team. They’d hung out for a bit to do autographs and stuff; I’d taken the chance to escape as soon as I could. I mean, what the hell was I supposed to autograph? The way things were going, I’d probably use my own signature by mistake. Fuck, that made me realize I’d need a Knockoff signature!
“Hi!” I screamed back. “I mean, uh, hi. Sorry.”
“Hello,” Magnum said coyly, sitting next to me and giving me a power armor-augmented sidehug. Once she’d squeezed me just shy of popping my ribs like a Sara-sized pistachio, she continued. “You did great out there, really. Everyone messes up a little.”
Before I had a chance to rebut that, Hotshot butted in. He was on his phone, the familiar reflection of PHO in his stupid sunglasses. “Hey! The internet loves you, looks like. Here, check it out.”
He passed me his phone. Yup, PHO. I had my own thread and everything. I started scrolling through, ignoring the heroes as they kept on talking. Hotshot was right, at least. My bumbling had translated into “more personal” and “less rigid” which was a plus, I guess. There were even pictures up… fuck, credit where credit was due, I almost looked legit.
They’d given me a patchwork theme of sorts, which I guess was the best you could expect with a power like mine, but it kinda worked. A simple mask covering the upper half of my face, with a kinda-generic-looking armor/bodysuit thing to protect my squishy organ bits, which flowed into a cute skirt (with leggings, of course, I’m not about that life). And a cape! I got to wear a fucking patchwork cape! The only downside was that the picture didn’t include the Sensible Boots I’d fought for during the endless trying-on of costume prototypes.
It was all a bit weird, seeing myself on-screen. Like, Knockoff didn’t look like me. She looked like a real hero, not a fifteen-year-old in the midst of trying to remember what went after the line about her new teammates.
I kept scrolling past the photos, but paused at the sight of a familiar user avatar. She was another fanfic writer, the one who’d beaten me to fem!Ley Line… and apparently she was looking forward to writing a Knockoff fic? What?
My new public identity was less than an hour old, and already I was getting fans. Nice.
“Hey, uhhh, can I ask you something?” Mirage asked me as I handed Hotshot his phone back.
“Shoot,” I replied, not sure what to expect.
“Well, um, we never did get to do that movie, and I thought maybe we could go tonight? I mean if you don’t have plans, that is.”
“Oh! Right, that was a… thing. Um…” I mean, I’d been planning on going home, snuggling under the covers, and aggressively browsing PHO for any mention of me until passing out at three in the morning. That being said, it probably wouldn’t hurt to learn more about my teammates, and more importantly it’d be an entire evening for my power to feast upon his. “Sure, why not,” I replied, ignoring the pointed stares from the other four members of the team.
“Cool! Same time and place?”
Hotshot interrupted. “If you guys are going out, go in costume. Knockoff needs to learn how to deal with the public, and it’ll be more laid back than a press conference. Plus, free admission and all that.”
Mirage sorta shrugged. “Oh, I was thinking—”
“That sounds hella fun!” I interrupted. “Plus I dunno about you guys but uhhh movies are expensive. And I can totally do autographs and stuff!”
“That’s the spirit. Powerplay and I are gonna go do some sparring. Feel free to join us if you want, Knockoff.”
“Uhhhh, sure yeah I can drop by later,” I said to Hotshot’s back as he walked away with Powerplay floating next to him. Okay. I sighed, looking around at my remaining teammates. Mirage was standing, his invisibility cloak on and letting me see the Image workers behind him, Magnum was sitting on one side of me with her helmet off. Hype was glancing between me and Mirage, an oblivious smile on her face.
It stayed like that for a bit. Awkward silence. Finally after a minute or so, I stood. “Might as well get ‘sparring’ out of the way,” I said with a laugh.
Okay, Mirage was a dork, let’s get that clear. But even dorks can have redeeming features, and his was a fucking Tinkertech motorcycle. It was sleek as hell, purred like a kitten, and unlike his kinda-generic off-white armor, it was painted in an iridescent black/purple color. It was like a futuristic version of the PRT motorcycle patrols they’d done a pilot study on a few years back, except, y’know, not doomed to failure by the fact that you can’t fire confoam at getaway cars while also driving in bulky armor.
The movie was mediocre, some sci-fi thriller trash about spaceships or something. I spent the entire time leaning against Mirage absorbing his power. The theater itself was quiet; the pimple-faced teenager with the “ripping tickets in half” job asked me for an autograph, I wasn’t sure what to do so I just put a “K” and some scribbles that vaguely looked like “Knockoff”. And then we were back out in the warm Portland evening air, walking back to his motorcycle.
“You want to hit a gas station?” Mirage asked. “I kinda want a soda but I don’t want it badly enough to pay theater prices.”
“Uh, sure,” I replied. I kinda wanted to go home more, but it woulda been rude. Besides, it wasn’t like grabbing a couple sodas would take that long. He hopped on the bike and I clambered behind him, putting on the too-big helmet that supposedly would keep my brains inside, and grabbing my cape so I didn’t have to think about what would happen if it got stuck in the rear wheels. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Image assured me that it detached easily in case a villain grabbed it or something, but I was more worried about what it would do when it got tangled up in the wheel.
The quiet purring of his bike lasted only a minute or so until we pulled into a gas station down the road from the theater. I hopped off and headed in, giving the bewildered pump jockey a wave because I wasn’t sure what else to do.
“I’m going to use the restroom,” I said quietly to Mirage.
“Oh that’s a good idea, me too,” he replied, heading to follow me to the back of the store.
Wait, what? “What?”
He blinked. “I, uh, am also going to use the restroom.”
He snorted. “You’re stupid. You know there’s, like, a separate men’s and women’s room, right?”
“...Yes.” I didn’t just think you were going to be a stupid boy trying to pull a stupid boy thing like in all the fanfics, nope. “Anyway, peeing. Bye.” I leapt into the ladies’ room, trying not to be more embarrassing.
It took a minute to peel out of enough armor (note to self: figure out a way to make that easier), but eventually I was situated enough to pull out my phone. There was a missed call from Mom, no voicemail of course. I pulled up the PHO app, looking to see if I was internet famous yet—
There was shouting outside. Ugh. I finished my business, pulled armor bits back on, washed my hands, put phone away, put stupid armored glove-things back on, and jumped out just in time to see what the commotion was.
“...I don’t care if it’s paper or plastic, just put the cash in a fucking bag!” a woman was shouting. I ducked behind the chip display, edging forward, my boots making hopefully-inaudible thumps against the linoleum. I reached the jerky display endcap and poked my head out.
A scantily-clad woman was standing at the counter with spiky-bracelet-clad hands on her hips. Her dark hair had chalk or something running through it, and from behind she just seemed to be wearing a black bikini, thighhighs, and step-on-me boots. I swallowed the lump in my throat. A supervillain, and from the lack of protection she had to be a high-rated Brute.
The gentleman behind the counter spotted me, and his glance caused the supervillain to spin around, just in time to see me jolt up and hit my head off the jerky display. “Ow! Fuck!” I shouted, grabbing my head with one hand and grabbing for my not-even-remotely-functional laser pistol with the other.
“You okay? That looked painful,” Slutty Supervillain said.
“Freeze, criminal scum!” I shouted as I finally got the stupid holster open and leveled the pistol at her. From the front, I could see more of her… costume. Covering her boobs were, like, halloween decoration skulls, like the kind you put on your porch to be spooky. She had another one in her crotchal area, but that one was installed backwards so the mouth and eyes and all that faced… inwards. Classy.
“‘Criminal scum’, really?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. Her face was covered in a white chalky facepaint, with a black stripe going across her emerald-colored eyes, like if she closed her eyes it’d look kinda like a blindfold? It was enough that I finally put the dots together.
“You’re Skullfucker!” I couldn’t help but shout. “My first cape fight and I get Skullfucker! Ooooh, what’s your power?”
“I mean there’s only one fic of you and it has, like, floating skull powers. It also gave you brown eyes though—”
“Ugh shut up, Knockoff! That fanfic was awful!” Skullfucker shouted. “And make one wrong move and you’ll find out what my power is, you… child!”
Child? Fuck you. “Whatever, I’m not the one dresses like an undead vampire on a beach episode!”
“Wh—a beach episode?” she glanced down. “I like the aesthetic, okay?”
She sounded a little hurt, but that didn’t matter. All I had to do was wait for Mirage, the real cape, to sneak up from behind and hit her over the head, or something. Skullfucker was a low-profile villain, fairly new to Portland, and she only did, like, one minor thing a month, but a villain was a villain. With her between me and the door, I just had to hope she didn’t go on the offensive with whatever skullfucking powers she had. I really wasn’t in the mood to be skullfucked, even by her. I wasn’t about that life.
“Sorry. I mean. I dunno, it seems like it’d be a poor choice in the winter, y’know?” I said with a shrug keeping my laser pistol aimed at her. “Like maybe a black cloak or something? Oooh, you could get like crow feathers and weave them into it, that’d be pretty cool.”
Skullfucker rolled her eyes. “Thanks for the fashion advice, kid, but look what happened to the last black-feathered-cloak-wearing, scantily-clad supervillain.”
“The—” she was interrupted by a phone ringing. Wait, my phone ringing! Shit, fuck, I’d turned it off silent mode after the theater. I kept my aim steady just like Sergeant Cooper taught me, ignoring the buzzing. “...Are you gonna get that?” she finally asked.
“And let you take advantage of the distraction to attack me? Try again.”
“It could be your teammates. Or the police. Or the PRT. It’s probably important, you’re a superhero.”
“You’re just saying that to distract me!” She had a point though. Maybe I should… Keeping my eyes on her, I fumbled it out of its belt pouch, glancing down. Mom calling, again. Like I wasn’t busy right now! I put it back in its spot.
“Aww, not that important? Was it your mommy?” Skullfucker made little sobbing motions with her fists.
“As a matter of fact it was, you ass!” I shouted at her, immediately regretting it as she started laughing.
“Oh my godddd, Knockoff, you are adorable! I just wanna pick you up and put you in my pocket.”
“You don’t even have pockets, you, you, you…” I trailed off, not having a comeback. This was getting awkward.
Skullfucker grinned. “Look, this has been fun and all, you might have a peashooter, but I still have the advantage. You wanna know why?”
Fucking hell, what the fuck is this? Sara, just buy time. WHERE THE FUCK IS MIRAGE??? “What’s that?”
“You don’t know what my power is, and you’re a hero who can’t risk collateral damage. For all you know I could pull out this lovely cashier’s skull at any moment—”
“Please don’t do that,” the cashier interrupted.
“Right, so please don’t make me do that, kiddo,” Skullfucker said, grabbing the paper bag of cash off of the counter. Kiddo??? Whatever… fuck, she’s right. I didn’t know her power, I couldn't risk it. If my laser pistol was real, maybe I could’ve tried to get a surprise shot off, but... “This was fun. Next time let’s bring stuff for each other to autograph?”
I didn’t answer, just glared at her stupid green eyes as she backed through the gas station doors. As soon as she was clear, she bolted. I sighed and put the pistol away.
“Are you okay? She didn’t hurt you, right?” I asked the cashier. He nodded. I was about to say something when the sound of a bathroom door opening came from behind. I spun around, hand on my reholstered pistol, only to see Mirage standing there.
“Uh… you okay, Knockoff?”
“WHERE THE FUCK WERE YOU?” I shouted.
“...In the bathroom?”
“How long does it take you to pee! What the actual hell???”
“First of all, it was a number two, secondly, what the fuck are you so mad about?” Mirage’s confusion was becoming anger.
“I was waiting for your backup! The fucking gas station got robbed by a supervillain! How the hell did you not hear the shouting!”
“Oh. Oh! That’s what that was. I thought someone was just playing their music or something.”
“WELL NEXT TIME JUST PINCH IT OFF SO I DON’T HAVE TO DEAL WITH SKULLFUCKER BY MYSELF!”
“Wait, Skullfucker?” he asked. “Like, the, uh…” he trailed off, making awkward grabby motions in his boobish area.
“Yes, the one with the skull costume, you pervert.”
“I’m not a pervert, that’s just literally all we know about her! A name and a costume.”
“Well, that’s not changed,” I grumbled. “She threatened to pull out the cashier’s skull if I didn’t let her go. I was waiting for you to, like, sneak up behind her and bash her head in with a fire extinguisher.”
“Oh. Well I was in the restroom. Next time text, or use your radio?”
I grimaced. “They, uh… haven’t given me a radio yet. I guess they were out of ones programmed with the Wards codes? And the IT guy was off today, so… yeah.”
“Right… nobody was hurt though, right?”
“No,” I admitted. “She just got away with like a thousand bucks or whatever was in the register.”
“Two hundred,” The cashier piped up, reminded me that he was still here, witnessing this fucking shitshow.
“Okay,” Mirage replied. “Let’s get out of there, then. The police can deal with it when they get here.”
“...Okay,” I said, feeling anything but. On the bright side, at least I didn’t get stabbed by a homeless dude this time.
It was a short ride home. I normally would’ve been worried about driving home in a Tinkertech motorcycle, but Mirage activated his bike’s cloaking field, which somehow made us invisible and unheard along the quiet streets. Probably not the best feature to use in traffic, but at this time of night there wasn’t any.
“I’ll fill out the reports online tonight,” Mirage said as he stopped in front of my house. “See you tomorrow?”
“Yeah, see you tomorrow.” I replied with a smile, handing him back his spare helmet. I wasn’t sure if, like, a hug was warranted right now (or a kiss, gross), so I just walked away, only dropping my keys once as I tried to unlock the door… and then finally I was home.
“Mom, Dad, I’m home!” I shouted, kneeling down to pet Yowly and Lily as they scrambled towards me. And then I promptly had to leap back up as Lily tried to climb my cape.
“Hey honey,” Mom said, poking her head into the entryway. She was still in her work jacket, which was kinda weird. Normally her work washed those, but then again, I’d also worn my uniform home, so… yeah.
“Hi!” I said, doing a twirl. “What do you think?”
“Very heroic,” she replied with a smile.
“Yeah! Did you see the press conference?” I asked, hoping she said no.
“I did! It was on at work. A bit sad I couldn’t gloat, of course.” Great, she saw that dumpster fire.
I rolled my eyes. “I’ll be upstairs, I wanna see if PHO’s said anything yet.” With that, I dashed upstairs, only almost tripping over my cape twice in the process. I’d just sat down at my computer, and was halfway through pulling all my stuff out of the ten billion pouches and pockets when there was a knock at the door.
“Yeah?” I asked. The door opened. It was Mom again, smiling.
“Hey—” I was interrupted by the phone yet again. I grabbed it, glancing down. Mom was calling.
I looked up.
Mom didn’t have a phone in her hands. She wasn’t smiling anymore, either. Then I felt weakness overcome me, and I fell to the ground.
Chapter 6: Handshake
Slowly, consciousness came back to me. I was lying on my side, face buried in something… warm and furry. My hands were stuck behind me, by the tight feeling on my wrists it had to be handcuffs. Still wearing my Knockoff armor.
I opened my eyes blearily. I was on the living room floor. Home. Home? Lily was asleep next to my head, twitching slightly in her kitty dreams. But… Mom? She’s been…
She wasn’t Mom. Fuck. Given that I’d immediately stopped being awake, and was now handcuffed, that had to be it, right?
With a groan, I rolled forward onto my stomach, getting the weight off my shoulder. Step one, get my hands on the useful side of me. I pulled my legs up to my chest, struggling to get my handcuffed wrists past my butt (and then legs) so at least I could use my hands for something, anything, to figure out a step two. I wasn’t the most flexible; it took a few tries before I managed, the cuffs digging into my wrists painfully… and then I was free. Well, “free”. I had my hands in front of me, which meant I could pull myself up to my feet.
“Are you done?” A woman spoke. FUCK! I definitely didn’t nearly die of a heart attack.
There was a woman sitting on the sofa, looking at me with a quiet expression. I hadn’t heard her before. Fucking jesus christ shitbucket, this was all I needed.
She was wearing a dark three-piece suit, well-fit, and a mask that looked more in place for a masquerade than a cape fight. The very impression of poise and handsome femininity. Not that I gave a flying fuck about that right now.
“Knockoff,” she said, her voice radiating chill.
“Asshole in a suit who I don’t know,” I replied, trying to keep calm. “Who are you and why are you in my home?”
She sniffed. “I’d say I’m hurt you don’t know me, but I don’t really care either way what you think. Sit down.” She pointed to Dad’s recliner.
I ignored her. “What the fuck did you do to my family?”
“Sit down. I will not repeat myself.”
“Answer my fucking questions!” I shouted. Her cold expression didn’t change, but I got the distinct impression that I wasn’t going to get an answer and maybe I should just sit down. I sighed and sat down, on the edge of the chair. There were footsteps from the kitchen, and a second later two capes stepped into the living room. A man in a fancy tuxedo thing with a maroon sash, and a woman in a very pretty blue evening gown, with a gleaming golden sword easily five feet long on her back. Her, I recognized. Cutting Edge, a member of Portland’s cell of the Elite. Which meant the other two were most likely Elite as well. That would probably make suit woman Patrician; as for the guy I had no clue. He wasn’t in any fanfics, at least none I’d read.
Tux man looked over the assorted family photos and participation ribbons lining the walls, while Cutting Edge knelt down to pick up Lily and give her scratches. They both had full-face masks, which was annoying. I couldn’t even tell where they were looking. Patrician cleared her throat, glancing down at a laptop on the coffee table that I hadn’t even noticed. “Knockoff. Sara Caraway Pratt. Parahumans Online username…” she squinted at the screen in disgust. “We are also aware of.”
“Cool, you doxxed me. Where is my family?” I said quietly, glancing between her and Lily. The traitor was snuggling against Cutting Edge and purring.
Patrician turned the laptop to face me. It was open to a spreadsheet, full of my information. Usernames, bank account stuff, medical history, school records… everything. At the bottom, there were tabs for more sheets. One for Mom, one for Dad. It kept going, listing Dad’s family in California before the screen ran out of space to list tabs.
I wasn’t sure my heart could sink any further, and then Patrician alt-tabbed to a new window. A pair of camera feeds appeared, one showing Mom in her restaurant’s parking lot, the hood of her car up and open, the other looking down on Dad in his office, working late as always.
I took a deep breath, rubbing my temples as best I could with my wrists cuffed. I wanted to shout and scream at her, at all of them, but even I knew that that would be a really fucking bad idea. “Why,” I settled myself to saying in a flat voice.
“Our operations in this city are built upon stability, the status quo, if you will—”
“The unwritten rules, you mean.”
Patrician scowled. “Whatever you decide to call it, that understanding is crucial. The heroes understand this, as do the Cascadians, Burnsiders, even those ruffians on the east side. So when a new figure enters the stage, and promptly disrupts the scene, it is cause for concern. Your actions in stalking and nearly murdering Everything Evil—”
“He attacked me! That was self-defence!”
“Interrupt me one more time and Cutting Edge will have your tongue,” Patrician growled, more than a hint of disdainful anger seeping through her patina of frost. I glanced up at the woman in question. Yup, not that kind of tongue-having.
“Look. It was a fuckup, everyone in this stupid city is aware of that. Couldn’t you have just sent a text or something? This seems like a bit much, y’know.”
She laughed, the sort of laugh that kids did in middle school when you couldn’t name the capital of Kyrgyzstan. “That is very simple, Sara. If you stick so much as a toe out of line, we will release all of our information on you. More than a toe, well… let me put it this way, it is up to you whether your family comes home all at once, or very slowly, piece by piece.”
“Okay,” I said flatly. Nothing like death threats to start the day off. Except this time it wasn’t some salty dude mad at “the gays” and me portraying them as humans, it was actual death threats, towards my family, from real people.
“Now. We are going to leave, and you are going to be a good girl and keep quiet about our conversation. And when we next speak, you are going to obey without so much as a wayward peep. Are we clear?”
I nodded, closing my eyes. It all was… too much. I wanted to throw up. Everything felt numb, a weary chill that I hadn’t noticed setting in for that entire conversation. It wasn’t until the front door slammed shut a moment later that I realized they’d left.
“Sara, you alright?”
I looked up from the table. Dutch (aka Hotshot) was looking at me, a bit of worry in his blue eyes. Was I alright, though? Last night, after the Elite had left, everything had been a blur. I vaguely remember throwing up in the bathroom, a desperate hour of hacksawing to get out of the stupid handcuffs they’d left me in, and a long night of restless, paranoid sleep.
“Sara? Knockoff? You there?”
“Yeah, sorry. Just… a lot on my mind.”
“Anything I can help with?” he asked, sitting down across from me. He smiled reassuringly. Normally I would’ve called his look ‘smug’ but that didn’t seem right.
“Nah,” I said with a shrug. It was weird. You know how in basically every thriller book or TV show or movie, the bad guys say not to go to the cops? I’d always yelled at them that that was dumb. Now I was in that spot though, with Patrician’s invisible sword hanging over my family’s heads. Yeah, sorry about that, fictional victims of imaginary evil supervillains.
Dutch leaned back in this chair, fingers interlaced behind his head. “It’s okay to be stressed, or freaked out, or whatever. Don’t feel ashamed for it, we’ve literally all been in your place. It’s a lot to get used to.”
“It’s… not that,” I replied. “Well, mostly not that. Just… stuff and things, y’know?”
“Stuff and things, gotcha. You’re still good for training with Audrey—” that was Hypothermia “—later?”
“Yeah, I was just going to get some Tinkering out of the way beforehand.”
“Awesome. Well, one other thing.” He paused for a moment. “Listen, uhhh, some friends and I were gonna have a little get-together at my place tonight, I thought I’d invite you along too. If you’re not busy, I mean.”
“Yeah, like a party. My folks’re out of town this week, so it’s sort of a belated Fourth of July thing.”
“A party,” I said flatly. “At your house.” House. He probably lives in, like, a mansion, with like butlers and shit. Recoil had mentioned being invited to these so-called parties. She hadn’t really sounded like a fan.
“Ahhhh, like I said if you’re not—”
“No! It’s fine,” I cut him off. “Sorry, I just… don’t get invited to things a lot. I’m… kind of a loser, at school and stuff.”
“Oh, whatever!” he said with a laugh, in that sort of way that was like yes why did you bring that up I was pointedly pretending that wasn’t the case. “I’m sure you’ll get along fine with everyone. Just, y’know, keep the whole Wards thing on the D-L in public, of course.”
“Anyway, I’ll text you the address. Just… just so you know, a couple people might bring drinks. Don’t feel like you have to… take part in teenage alcoholism if you don’t want to.”
“I… okay? Thanks for the, uh, heads up?” Based on my expansive knowledge of fanfiction, couple people probably meant everyone attending. Which meant there was a non-zero chance that I, some loser, would be drinking for the first time. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that, but a month ago I’d been a PRT intern and three months ago I’d been throwing myself in front of rush-hour traffic just so I could get an autograph from a hero.
So yeah, at this point ‘never done it before’ was starting to become the norm. Plus, given the life expectancy of the average parahuman, I was relatively sure an Endbringer would kill me before any significant amount of alcohol poisoning.
God, that was depressing.
At some point, Dutch excused himself, and I went back to resting my face on the table, with yet a few more topics added to the concerns pile filling my head.
When I’d first started high school, the PE teacher had decided to somehow inspire us to be physically active, or something. Every day we’d do some sort different activity, whether it was running the mile, playing dodgeball, or badminton with beat-up nets and racquets. One day in particular, we went down to the weight room, because apparently Mr. Welch had decided that was that class’s lesson of the day. I can remember it clear as day, the smell of body-odor and sweat, beaten-up punching bags covered in patches, the shoddy weight rack that the shop class had made three years ago. It was a… very unique experience.
The Wards had a dedicated gym on our floor, filled with equipment that to my untrained eyes looked brand-new. Everything pristine, and picture-perfect. It was one of the places the building tour occasionally hit, so it had to be.
Still, standing on a big mat wearing generic PRT workout clothes, I couldn’t help but feel like I was back in that dingy weight room. Hopefully this time I wouldn’t drop a barbell on my foot.
Audrey walked in, waving at me before tossing her phone and stuff onto a bench. “Hey Sara,” she said with a smile. “You ready?”
I shrugged. “No, but I probably won’t ever be.”
“I gotcha. Don’t worry about it. Like, none of us—except maybe Heather—were exactly combat ready when we started.”
“She had it rough growing up,” she replied hesitantly. “Anyway, my point is, it’s going to suck but then it’ll suck less and you’ll have muscles and know how to use them.”
I paused, frowning. Powerplay didn’t strike me as the type that would’ve dealt with that sort of thing. Then again, I probably didn’t strike anyone as the type that could be a cape, so… yeah. I cleared my throat, “Gotcha. What are we doing?”
“Today’s just going to be figuring out exactly where you’re at physically.”
“And tomorrow? Depends on how that goes?”
Audrey smirked, which was definitely not what I was expecting from Hypothermia of all people. “Probably strength training for awhile. No offense, but you’re a twig.”
“None taken,” I said awkwardly. “So what do you mean by, like, figuring out? Are we going to spar or something?” She was somehow shorter than me, but I was still more than a little worried about having to fight her, even for practice.
“Not today, and probably not until you’ve beaten a punching bag for a few weeks.”
“Oh? That’s…” I trailed off.
“This isn’t like the movies, Sara.”
“I mean I guess I’m a little worried because I’m, like, going on patrols and stuff? What if we get in a fight? I don’t want to be, um, useless?”
She sighed, looking me up and down for a moment. “Okay, Sara. Try and punch me.”
I cocked my head to the side. Was she serious? “Um, shouldn’t we have, like, pads or something? I don’t want to hurt you…”
“You’re not going to hurt me.”
Oof. Alright then. I raised my fists and jumped at her. A second later I was on my back, Audrey looking down at me. She’d just… dodged, and I’d tripped over her leg and yeah.
“Nobody’s born with magical fighting abilities, Sara. You’ll get there, but it takes practice.”
She offered a hand and pulled me back onto my feet. “That’s just my point though, like… I don’t know what I’m doing. At all. Wouldn’t it make sense to get some basic stuff in, just in case?”
“Sara, right now, if you’re in a position where you don’t have your tech and you’re up close with a villain, promise me you’ll run. If you throw a punch, even if you connect it’ll do, like, nothing to them, and then they knock out Knockoff.” She grinned.
“How long were you waiting to say ‘knock out Knockoff’, exactly?” I asked, rolling my eyes.
“No comment. Now, we’re going to run on the treadmill until you want to die,” she said cheerily. I groaned.
It was dark out and kinda chilly by the time I made it to Dutch’s place. Well, it was more like ‘ten million dollar mansion on a privately-owned island on Lake Oswego’, so ‘place’ didn’t really do it justice. Whatever.
There were maybe a dozen cars parked in the driveway and all over the perfectly-manicured lawn. A path led down to the lake, and through the trees I could see a few people hanging out by some boats. He had his own fucking dock. What the shit.
I’d never been one for social gatherings, I’ll be honest. The fact that this was the setting made it all the more terrifying, but I was a new Sara now. I was a Ward, and what kind of superhero was scared of parties?
With that in mind, I pushed the lump in my throat down to rest next to my galloping heart, and punched the doorbell. I was only stuck looking at the precisely-manicured flower beds along the walkway for a few seconds, before the door opened and Dutch popped out. “Sara! You made it!”
“Hi,” I said with a wave. “I like your place.”
He laughed. “Thanks, but it’s my dad’s, not mine. C’mon in.” He held the door open for me, and I stepped into an expansive, brightly-lit room lined with sleek modern art I’m sure meant something. There was loud music coming from down the hall, and the relatively-faint sound of people talking over it. “Oh, and no talking about work, remember?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Um… but I don’t know if you really know this, but… your, um, job isn’t exactly a secret.”
“I know.” He gave me a reassuring look. “But your job is, and so are all the others’. Easier just to not go there.”
“Gotcha.” I felt kinda dumb, honestly. That should’ve been a common-sense sort of thing. Although I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone would put together Knockoff’s debut with this rich kid and known cape suddenly gaining a loser friend. … Then again, I was the loser in question and I couldn’t believe it, so surely everyone else would buy that it was a coincidence.
While I was busy internally scolding myself, Dutch grabbed my hand and dragged me into another room. The first thing I noticed was the heavy smell of alcohol and the devil’s lettuce in the air. The second thing I noticed was the noise. Music was pumping from unseen speakers, filling the room with resonating drumbeats. Yet somehow, it wasn’t as loud as I was expecting from what I’d heard in the entryway. I didn’t have much time to dwell on that, though, as between the pool table, wet bar, dart board, appetizer table, and everything else, was about two dozen prime examples of an introvert’s nightmare—people.
Ever the gracious host, Dutch took it upon himself to drag my around to all the reveling partygoers, introducing us. I forgot all their names immediately, except for Heather, who of course he made sure to “introduce” me to.
And then I was free, well, somewhat free. Dutch wandered off to be a good host, I found an empty bit of wall to wallflower on, trying not to look like I’d recently had ten billion stitches, zero hours of sleep, and the hardest workout of my life.
“Hey, Sara right?” Someone asked next to me. I looked over, to see a tall-ish dude with a polo shirt. Brown hair, blue eyes, a smirk. He was holding a pair of condensation-lined plastic cups in his hands.
“Oh uh yeah,” I said with a smile I didn’t really feel. “Sorry, um… I just met like a billion people…”
“Tom,” he replied with a laugh. “Nice shirt, by the way. You like Scarab?”
I glanced down. Right. It was a simple grey-ish t-shirt with a watercolor Scarab in the process of pulling makeshift armor out of an imaginary ground. Image had made it as a prototype a few months ago, but ultimately decided that the soft-seeming art style didn’t fit well with a cape that somehow managed to be more destructive than Hypothermia. I thought it was cool, but I was a sucker for that sorta thing. Showing the cape without the mast was, after all, a key facet of speculative capefic writing.
“She’s pretty cool, I guess,” I said. Then, worried that I might be letting on too much, I continued, “I mean I’m not really that much of a cake geek, I just uhhh saw it in the store and thought it looked neat. Gotta rep the local team, right?”
“I suppose that’s as good a reason as any. Hey, you want a drink?” He held out one of the cups towards me. Oh. Oh fuck. My heart rate quickened. Honestly, part of me had been hoping to just side-step that instead of dealing with any awkwardness of figuring out how alcohol worked, but here I was being offered. Hesitantly I took the cup, holding it in both hands and taking a smell of the drink within. It smelled… beery.
“What’s this?” I asked, mostly out of curiosity than anything.
“No, I mean like doesn’t beer come in different… oh whatever.” I took a sip. And then promptly started coughing as the taste hit me. It definitely tasted a lot stronger than it smelled, like someone had, well, taken a bunch of plants and left them in a jug for a month. “Oh god how do you drink that???” I gasped.
“You don’t drink for the taste, Sara,” he replied, chugging down half his beer. Hesitantly, I followed suit, trying not to taste it too much, which was harder than it sounded.
“How will I tell if I’m… drunk?”
“When’s the last time you ate?”
“Uh… like I had a snack before I got on the bus, but…” I trailed off, shrugging.
“Wait, you took the bus here?” Tom asked, his voice incredulous, and… something.
“Well, most of the way. I had to, like, walk the last mile? It doesn’t go all the way” My tummy was feeling a little weird, maybe that was the booze.
“Huh. Anyway, don’t drink too quickly unless you want to get fuuuucked up.”
I glanced down at the cup. My chugging had emptied it two-thirds of the way. Already, my tummy was feeling kinda funny. Was that what being drunk was like? How could you tell when you were drunk? I mean, what if I was just placebo-effecting myself into thinking I was drunk? Wait, ‘placebo-effecting’? Wasn’t there, like, an actual word for that? Like a diseasey-sounding word. Like hypochondria but for being inebriated. Heh. If one of my teammates had that she’d be a Hypothermia with hypochondria.
…Okay, yeah, I was drunk.
“Too late,” I said, a little louder than I’d meant. With an internal ‘yolo’ I finished the red plastic cup off and tossed it towards the nearest trashcan. It missed. “Fuck,” I grumbled to myself, walking over to—aaaaaaaaa okay yeah walking was like ten thousand times harder now.
And then there was a warm hand at my waist steadying me. Tom. Tom? Okay. “Careful there, lightweight!” he said cheerfully, like he was trying not to laugh. I couldn’t help but find myself giggling too. Everything was all…whoosh.
And then he was guiding me out of the room. It was a little loud inside. “Where’re we going?” I asked, having to form the words a few times before they came out properly.
“You wanna see my boat?” he asked. He had a fucking boat? Nice.
I tried to say “sure!” but nothing came out, so instead I just nodded. Tom led me outside, into the fresh evening air I’d sworn had felt just a little too cold earlier—
“Sara!” someone shouted, angrily. Tom stopped, and I stopped with him, stumbling a little, but he kept me on my feet. I glanced back to see Powerplay—Heather. Right, no costume. Why was she here though?
“Hey there big H,” Tom said, his grip on my tightening. “What’s up?”
“What the fuck is wrong with you???” Powerplay snarled, walking up and punching him in the face. What?
I somehow found my tongue, enough to start shouting “Pow—” before she grabbed me and fucking threw me over her shoulder like a fucking bag of rice. And then she was carrying me somewhere, and… and…
I woke up in an unfamiliar bedroom. No, it was a living room. I was on a couch. My head was pounding like a gong, to the point where the lights were too painful. Everything was heavy, and I felt like throwing up.
“Sara?” someone asked, shaking my arm. I muttered out a groan. “Sara, it’s okay, you’re safe.”
“Whaaaaaaaa?” I opened my eyes. It was Heather. “Where… where am I?” My tongue was made of sandpaper, but I got the words out.
“I didn’t know where to take you, so, um, welcome to my dad’s living room?” she said. “Sara… fuck, I’m so sorry. That was, like, totally not cool.”
“What?” I pulled myself up to a sitting position, wincing. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Dude, like… fuck, you got roofied? Right, I guess that’d be hard to remember. This asshole at the party slipped you something. He was about to take off with you.”
I closed my eyes. Is she being serious? Did I… holy shit. “Fuck. I… thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Rule number one of parties, don’t accept drinks from strange men, ever.”
“Sorry.” I said, eyes still closed. Everything hurt still, and the urge to throw up was getting greater. I could’ve been… jesus.
“Sara, look at me.” I opened my eyes. Heather was staring at me. “Just… don’t be sorry. But someone won’t always be there to save you.”
I would’ve given her a hug, but I wasn’t sure we were there yet. That, and I was pretty sure I’d vomit on her if I moved. “I’m never drinking again.”
“Probably not a bad idea,” she replied with a snort. She pressed a glass of water into my hands. “Hydrate before you die-drate.”
“Drink lots of water or your hangover will be even worse, dumbass. Well, you’re supposed to drink water before, but water never hurt anything.”
I took a drink of the water, trying to remember what the fuck had happened. I’d… I remembered trying the beer, going outside, Tom getting punched, and then… nothing. There was nothing there. Another drink of water to distract from that thought. I’d never been a big fan of Heather before, but she wasn’t the type to do anything untoward… on the other hand, I did have to worry about myself. If I’d said something about the Elite…
“What happened…” I checked my phone. 6am. What the actual fuck. “…last night? Did I say anything?”
Heather didn’t respond at first. I looked over to see her playing with a bit where the couch was torn. She glanced over at me, a little awkwardly. “Um. You kept calling me your hero and trying to kiss me on the way home? It was kinda awkward, sorry.”
“No, like actually,” I replied with a laugh. Her expression told me the truth. Oh god I tried to make out with her. “Fuuuuuck me.”
“Like I said last night, you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
“Heather! Not like that. Oh my god please I’m so sorry. Can we just, like, never talk about this again?” FOR FUCK’S SAKE, DRUNK SARA. I swore a mental oath, then and there, to never drink again.
“I would definitely be okay with forgetting that entire experience,” she said with a snort. “Also between you and me, I’m pretty sure Chain Link isn’t about that, and I don’t think he has the, um, equipment for the job. I didn’t know you were a writer though, that’s pretty neat.”
Drunk Sara, you are going to pay for this. I buried my face in my hands. “Not a word, please. I really don’t want to make things weird at work.”
She laughed. “Don’t worry, I won’t.”
I paused. “So… that was it? I didn’t say anything else?”
“Dude, is there something you want to tell me?”
“No! I’m just… it’s nothing.”
Her look told me she knew I was full of shit, but she shook her head anyway. “Nothing besides that, at least not that I heard. I was more concentrated on trying to get us here safely.”
“Okay. Thank you, again. I… fuck, I never should have gone to that stupid party.” I closed my eyes, forcing myself to take deep breaths. I still had to cover my face.
“Sara,” Heather’s hand rested on my shoulder, and she sat next to me on the couch. “Don’t blame yourself. Shit happens. It wasn’t your fault, it was that fucking creep’s.”
“And if I never went? Nothing would’ve happened!”
“No, he would’ve gone after… after someone else instead. That’s what they do.”
I looked over at her, wiping away tears that didn’t want to leave. “Is he… what’s going to happen?”
She hesitated, sighing for a bit before responding. “That’s the tricky part. Now, don’t get me wrong, Dutch and I beat the shit out of him. Hopefully he got the hint. It’s… complicated, though. That Tom guy? Well, you don’t live in Oswego if you aren’t rich or powerful, and his family’s both. So…”
“So he’s free to continue being a date-raping creep? Fuck that.”
“Look, Sara. We can make this a thing. I’ll have your back, the whole team will, but it’s going to open a big can of worms. You’re a 15-year-old Ward, drinking at a party with two of your teammates? We won’t have to worry about the Director because PR will kill us themselves. And even if we did make this a thing, that guy’s dad can casually destroy us without denting his pocketbook.”
“Yeah. It is.” Heather stood up. “Coffee? Eggs? I can drop you off at home and then take us both into work.”
“Just coffee, thanks. I don’t think solid food’s a good idea right now.” I gave her a smile that probably looked as forced as it felt. As she wandered off into what I assumed was a kitchen, I was left with a singular thought above all the others darting around:
Sara, what have you gotten yourself into?
A blast whizzed past my head, forcing me to duck down behind the car I’d taken cover next to. Next to me, a woman had her arms wrapped around a screaming child. Fuck. Fuuuuck, this wasn’t good. Knockoff, let’s go on a patrol. It’ll be fine, hardly anybody picks cape fights on Thursdays.
“Hotshot, this is Lancer,” the Director’s voice sounded in my ear. “What’s your status?”
I hit the key in my glove, hand trembling. “This is Knockoff. Hotshot lost his radio in the hit. He’s fine though.” I poked my head around the bumper, to where Hotshot was pinned down.
“Knockoff then… can you give him your radio?”
“Uh… not really?”
There was a pause. Oof. “Okay. What’s going on?”
“Teamsters ambushed us. We’re pinned down. Not sure who they’ve got, but I saw Minister, and either Flamewar or Ignis.”
“Either?” Director Hibbert sounded frustrated.
“Or both? Their firebolts look the same to me, and nobody’s been hit yet to tell the difference. Sorry!”
“Copy that. Do you need backup?”
As another firebolt shot past me and into the brick wall behind me, I wondered what kind of fuckall stupid question that was. Send in the fucking army, we’re being shot at! Except… right, a cape now. Cops and robbers bullshit. I keyed the radio, “Maybe have the duty squad suit up? I think we got this, though.”
“…copy that. Keep in touch.”
“Understood. Knockoff out.”
Okay. At least two capes down the road, I was pinned down, and separated from my also pinned down teammate, and I had a pair of civilians with me. Fucking great. Alright. First priority had to be getting them to safety. I glanced over, away from the villains. An alley maybe 50 feet away, I could see the glimpse of a moron poking their cell phone out to record the cape fight. Whatever.
I turned my attention to the woman and presumably her kid. “Hey, I’ve got a plan, okay? See the alley down there?” she nodded, flinching as another firebolt sailed overhead. “When I say go, run for it and don’t look back, okay? I’m gonna distract them.”
“O-okay,” she said.
“Cool.” That wasn’t very heroic, but bigger fish right now. I pulled my recently-fixed laser pistol from its holster. Only preliminary approval from Ops on using it, and I was pretty sure it’d get me written up. Instead of dwelling on that, I got up on one knee and took aim with my arms on the car hood.
Minister was the first cape I saw. It was hard to miss him. Clad in only jeans and what I thought was some sort of executioner’s hood to hide his identity, every surface of his body I could see was covered in scar tissue ranging from barely-visible to hardly scabbed-over. A knife was in his hands, the blade already red, even as he drew a gash across his chest, blood pouring out.
Flamewar was beside him, a roiling, laughing furnace that threatened to engulf the entire street. I could barely see the shape of a figure inside the inferno.
Man, Portland has some weird capes. At least I didn’t see any others.
“Go!” I screamed, firing a shot at Minister. This time, golden blue light flew true… except I was a shit aim so it went past him and ricocheted off a car and into the sky, arcing away to probably land somewhere in East Portland. He ducked though, and I kept shooting, up until the needle on the energy gauge hit the angry red section and the car had partially melted into slag.
I looked behind me. They were gone. Hopefully safe. Feeling emboldened, I stepped out onto the street, pistol at the ready. Time to be a hero.
“Knockoff, what the fuck, get down!” Hotshot hissed. Why he was ducking, I had no clue, what with his shield power.
“Minister, Flamewar!” I shouted to the villains. “This is your chance to surrender before someone gets hurt.” PRT Image handbook rule number one: nobody accepts the surrender, but always offer it. It makes us look good.
Flamewar responded by hurling a bolt of fire at me. I dodged to the side towards Hotshot, wincing a bit as I heard the sizzle of my cape getting toasted. Thankfully, Ops had insisted on flame-retardant materials. My teammate grabbed me, dragging me over to behind his car.
“Knockoff… don’t do that again,” Hotshot said, exasperated. His hair was slightly singed from the firebolt that’d taken his comms out. Which reminded me…
“Director called for you. I let him know the sitch.”
“And what’s our backup?”
Oh. I’d thought we could just, like, take them easy. Two of them, two of us. It woulda been a solid fight…
My silence was apparently damning. “Knockoff, did you tell him not to bother with backup?”
“I, uh, asked him to get the duty team ready.”
He took a deep breath. “Okay. Next time, let me deal with that. It’s okay, now we’ll just have to… deal with this ourselves. Did Minister use his power on you?”
“What, like cut me? No.”
“No, was he looking at you when he cut himself?”
Oh. “Oh. Yeahhhhh… that’s not good?”
“No. He’s a wide-scope thinker. Assume he knows what you’ll do before you do it.”
“Fuck. Okay. You should take him then.”
“Yeah, and you get Ignis. Will your pistol hurt him?”
“I thought that was Flamewar, not Ignis,” I poked my head up to take a look, but Hotshot grabbed my shoulder and yanked me back down, just in time for a firebolt to sail past.
“Don’t do that. Listen, whoever it is, will your pistol work on them?”
I looked down at the device. “Maybe? I haven’t tried it on incorporeal fire beings before. At the very least, I can keep him distracted.” I turned the power dial from two to a little under three and a half.
“Sure you don’t want to set that a little higher?” Hotshot asked, peering over the top of his sunglasses at me.
I paused. “Did you see the Everything Evil pictures?” His grimace was all I needed in response. “I didn’t have a power dial then, but that was around a four point five.”
“Jesus, what’s a ten?”
“It only goes to six, past that it’ll just overload the synchronization crystals and explode in my hands. I figured if a villain got ahold of it they’d want to crank it up, and yeah…”
“HEROES!” Minister’s scream interrupted our meeting. “OR ARE YOU COWARDS?”
“This fucking asshole,” I grumbled. Hotspot grinned, and I felt a minute flicker as his shield power activated…
And then he leapt up and onto the car, firing finger-guns at them. I took the distraction to run a couple cars up, firing a shot at Minister as I ran to distract him from Hotshot’s hot shots. It didn’t work.
Flamewar—fuck, was it Ignis? No, I wouldn’t get them mixed up—watched me, his fire growing bright as he charged up. A pair of blasts slammed into a newspaper dispenser, shattering it and sending burning paper everywhere. I resisted the urge to duck down, instead returning fire. My shots went wide again, disappearing into the fire and out the other side instead of hitting the person buried within. Fuck me.
Flamewar roared, walking forward menacingly, more firebolts shooting out. One missed, but I misdodged the other, and a burning smell filled my nostrils. I glanced down. The PRT body armor was melted like it was made of wax, an acrid smoke coming off. Yay, possible carcinogens.
I looked back up, to see Flamewar still walking forward. His heat was definitely noticeable now, but… I could finish it. I leveled my pistol taking Sergeant Cooper’s stance, and for the first time he paused, head cocked to the side slightly. The figure inside opened his mouth to say something, but instead of listening I squeezed the trigger.
Golden blue speared out, hitting him in the torso and splattering all over the street with a sizzle. Flamewar screamed in agony, flinging another firebolt towards me. There was a burning smell, as he hit my—
“Knockoff!” Hotshot was shouting. Why was he shouting? Why was… “Knockoff, you don’t have to do this. Snap out of it!”
Snap out of it?
I looked around. A man with a red mask was motionless on the ground, breathing ragged. His clothes were burnt all over his stomach. In front of me, though…
What the fuck???
Minister was on his knees, looking up at me with tears in his brown eyes, surrounded by puddles of molten laser. I was holding my pistol, leveled at his head. You know, like I was about to execute him.
I stepped back, letting the pistol fall to the ground. Right… Flamewar had gotten me. Fuck. That wasn’t at all what I was expecting it to feel like.
“Knockoff, are you… you here?” It was Hotshot, approaching with his hands held wide, like he was dealing with a rabid dog.
“Yeah,” I replied, voice hoarse. “I’m here. I’m back.”
“Can you verify?”
“Four charlie delta zero four two,” I replied, rote. PRT Operations - Ward M/S verification codes, page one, red color, valid through 16 July 2011.
He relaxed a bit. “Jesus, you had me scared there. Call the PRT, get them here now.”
I nodded, picking my laser pistol off the asphalt. When had I set it to six? “Knockoff to HQ, requesting squad to my location.” I glanced over at what I presumed was Flamewar. “And medical on standby, please.”
“Understood. ETA two minutes.”
I gave Hotshot a nod. “What… what did I do when I was… out?”
“We’ll talk about it later. For now—”
Minister interrupted him, his voice harsh. “You showed us all just what horrors you are capable of, girl.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? Flamewar? I thought he just… made you crazy?” Probably not best form to talk to the supervillain, but I wanted answers. I was getting really fucking tired of capes casually fucking with my mind. First the Elite’s mom-impersonating Stranger, now this?
“Flamewar’s power brings out the worst in someone.” Minister grinned. “And my oh my, you were about to murder me in cold blood.”
“Knockoff, don’t listen to him,” Hotshot snarled. “He’s a thinker, he’s trying to manipulate you.” If I hadn’t been looking for it, though, I might not have caught the slight hesitation in his words. The same hesitation I felt. Yeah… he was probably fucking with me. But if he wasn’t? Yikes. Minister’s smirk couldn’t have been any plainer.
I took a deep breath, and decided to go back to my job. Protocols were nice. Rules and regulations didn’t make you question your morality. “Hands behind you, Minister,” I said flatly, whipping my handcuffs off of my belt and securing him. As if his mouth wasn’t the main weapon. “Hotshot, did he get you?”
“Only a little nick, we’ve done this before though—he knows better than to mess with me. Thanks for the consideration, though.”
“No problem,” I said weakly.
“Stop letting him into your head,” Hotshot reiterated. “Look at it this way. You just won your first proper cape fight.”
“Did the two secure villains make you think something else?”
“I just… I can’t remember what happened.”
“We kicked ass is what happened!” Hotshot grinned, punching my shoulder lightly. “Seriously, you did totally badass stunts and stuff. I mean I helped too, but yeah.”
There was a screech of tires from the nearest intersection, as a pair of PRT vans came around the corner, stopping a short distance away. The troops jumped out, confoam at the ready. It was the guys from squad seven based on their insignia. Nothing against them, I just didn’t know them that well. They handled all the Miranda rights and getting Minister and Flamewar loaded up, and then we hopped into the other van. As soon as the door shut, I tore off my mask, wincing at the pain in my arm where I’d gotten burned.
“Sara…” Hotshot trailed off as the van lurched into motion. “Don’t overthink what he said. Look, it was… a thing, alright? But everyone who gets Flamewarred gets a little psycho, yeah?”
“Dutch,” my voice was shaky. “I was about to execute him. That’s all I remember. Getting hit by Flamewar, and then about to melt a hole through Minister’s face.”
He shook his head, taking his glasses off and rubbing his eyes. “When I was first starting, I was on a patrol with Chain, and they hit him. Look, I know you’re going to look up your fight on PHO. Look up what Chain did. If it weren’t for my shield he would’ve beheaded me. His power makes you a psychopath. Not evil, or insane, or anything else. That bullshit about your darkest self or whatever? He’s trying to scare you.”
And yet, nobody but me has a Thinker saying I’m probably going to kill them. I didn’t voice that thought, instead simply shrugging.
“Listen, I know the other day was… rough, and this is adding onto it. But we’re going to be arriving at the HQ in a minute. Take a victory lap, okay? Don’t let your first win be bittersweet.”
Fuck. He was right. I was doing that thing I did where I got stuck in a black hole of angst. Not today. Today would be good. I’d look at the video tomorrow. “Okay,” I said, cracking a smile and putting my mask back on.
“There we go!”
“Sorry,” I said with a laugh that felt forced… but at least made me feel better. “Although taking credit for this will feel weird when it’s both of us who won.”
“Don’t you dare, Knockoff. I’m not the new kid on the block. You get to take the cred for this one.”
“Alright! Jeez, I’ll act like I did more than get brainwashed.”
“Okay, but stepping out like that to demand their surrender? I mean, never do that again, that’s an order, but that was pretty cool.”
I rolled my eyes, low-key relieved when the van stopped in front of the PRT building. Hotshot, glasses back on, hopped out, gesturing grandly for me to follow. As we stepped into the building, he grinned at me, then at the cluster of employees and civilians grouped around one of the lobby TVs.
“Hotshot, no,” I said, before whatever stupid thing he was—
“Ladies and gentleman of the PRT lobby! Behold, your woman of the hour, our one and only Knockoff!” Hotshot shouted.
“I will actually laser pistol you in the face,” I replied with a groan, trying to grin through the embarrassment. Yay for social anxiety.
We walked over to the crowd. I saw the chryon at the bottom of the TV reading “Breaking News”. I mean, I thought it’d just make the ten o’clock news and PHO, but seriously? That was hella cool.
It wasn’t until I got closer that I realized something was wrong. They weren’t happy, or celebratory. They were horrified. My heart sunk. Had it really been that bad when I was taken over? When…
No. No no no no no! FUCK!
It wasn’t local news. An Endbringer, so soon? No, it was… The voice of the newscaster hit me.
“…again, for those of you just joining us, Alexandria has been killed…”
Chapter 7: Bereavement
For hours, we watched in stunned silence. The screen changed from a news anchor to Chevalier and a line of assembled capes. Confirming what we all knew, but…
But going further. I'd heard about the Echidna incident, when I was an intern. No details, but… Alexandria had been behind it? She'd been infected by the Simurgh? It was almost too much to believe.
Alexandria had been my hero, the reason I'd even followed capes in the first place. An inspiration for countless girls around the world, a figure that had surpassed the celebrity of Presidents and movie stars, a living testament to humanity's resilience.
I cried. We all cried, heroes alongside PRT alongside tourists, standing in the lobby watching that TV in a state of shock. And then it was over. Chevalier, Dragon, the supervillain, they went away and the talking heads came back. I didn't listen to them. Instead, I went back outside to grab fresh air.
The glass doors shut behind me, and the street was almost quieter than indoors. I sat down on the step, leaning against the brick wall, everything… empty. For a few minutes I sat there, lost. Then, a disturbance.
Someone shouted something, and I looked up. Skullfucker was walking down the sidewalk towards me. There were streaks in her facepaint from where tears were revealing the pale skin underneath, and she held flowers wrapped in brown paper.
Our eyes met, but neither of us spoke. Her pace became a hair more cautious, but that was it. She set the flowers down next to the doorway, looking at them for a moment before glancing back at me.
“I… didn't know what to do, so I did this,” she said, voice shaky. “When I was a girl, I wanted to be Alexandria when I grew up. Not like her, I wanted to be her. Stupid kid thing.” She shrugged. “Funny how that turned out.”
I stood, walking over to stand next to her, looking down at the bouquet. It took a second to find my voice. “I had an Alexandria doll. Still have it, it's on my dresser at home. She was my best friend as a kid. I'd put her in my bike's basket and go on adventures for hours. We ran a lemonade stand once. I didn't have any real friends, just Alexandria.”
The door opened, and I looked over to see Ley Line. He glanced between Skullfucker and me, clearing his throat to say something but… it took him a moment. “She was a good woman. Knockoff, let's go. Director's called a meeting.”
“Okay,” I replied. I gave Skullfucker a small smile. “See you around, I guess.”
“You too,” she said, turning away.
It felt like a lot longer walk than usual, back through the lobby, up the nice elevator, to the Protectorate briefing room. Unlike the Wards’ early modern opulence and gilt, the Protectorate was sleek and contemporary. Dark slate-colored walls and steel fixtures, screens embedded in the table showing a spinning Protectorate logo, and plush leather seating.
I sat down in one of the empty spots, between Mirage and Demesne. The capes were all here, just us and the Director sat at the head of the table.
He cleared his throat once Ley and I sat. “There will be items coming to light in the next few days. All of this is currently confidential, of course, but I don't want you blindsided.
“First and foremost, for those who were not in Brockton for the Echidna incident, I can confirm that Alexandria's civilian identity was that of Rebecca Costa-Brown, until recently the Chief Director of the PRT.”
What the actual fuck? Alexandria had been the Chief Director?
“Right now, more than ever, the people need a strong Protectorate, a stable figure in their loves. These are uncertain times. That being said, Portland is a low-priority area for the PRT. There will be some temporary reassignments for the next few weeks, and everyone will be picking up extra responsibility. This will be difficult.
“Chain Link, you'll be heading to Brockton Bay along with Demesne, along with squads two and six of our PRT officers. Ley Line, you've been requested in New York to work under Legend as an assessment, if all goes well you'll be filling the Captain's position vacated by Apollyon's death.” Ley started to say something in protest, but the Director waved it down. “You and Chain have done an excellent job co-managing the responsibilities, but it's been two months since Leviathan. Congratulations on a well-deserved promotion.
“There may be other assignments as well, specifics are still being coordinated between the other departments. As for my Wards… you will be filling in the gaps. The people need hope and reassurance, and your vigilance will provide that. It's times like this that we must remember why we put so much importance on appearances. A symbol of hope, and trust, and a light in the darkness… that symbol will do more good than any number of cape fights. Today we lost one of those symbols, and nobody can fill that void.”
He glanced around the room, looking at each of us for a moment. “We are fighting a losing battle. The foundations that the PRT and the Protectorate are built on is crumbling. I cannot say for certain that they will still stand five years from now. But I know for a fact that whatever may come next, the men and women in this building are the most worthy and qualified souls to face it.
“Finally, all those who have been exposed to the Simurgh should expect an evaluation sometime in the next few months. Nobody here is near the threshold for concern, but they have to check. That will be all.” As soon as he finished, he stood from the table.
“Wards,” Hotshot said, all eyes turning to him as Director Hibbert stepped out. “Meeting upstairs in half an hour.”
My phone vibrated. A text from my mom, asking if I was okay, if I’d heard. I didn’t reply, just putting the phone away. Deep breaths, my mind reeling. Alexandria was dead, Alexandria had been the ex-Chief Director, half the Protectorate was getting shipped off… it was a lot to deal with.
But I couldn’t deal with it now. My arm was blistered and burnt where I’d gotten hit by Flamewar, my costume was made entirely of sweat from the fight, my head was still reeling from the news… yeah.
The second would have to wait until after Hotshot’s meeting, but the first was simple enough. My mind felt like it was in a fog as I made my way down to Medical, swallowing whatever pills the doctors threw at me and trying not to wince too noticeably as they slathered my arm in ointment and turned it into a mummy.
A couple prescriptions and stern words later and I was walking into the Wards HQ, head somewhat less full of cotton balls. I was the last to arrive.
“Okay,” Hotshot said from the head of the table as I sat down, trying to ignore all the eyes on me. “I’m not going to take up much time. We’re going to be upping our patrols significantly, and letting the people know our presence. Powerplay, tonight I want you and Hype out there… don’t worry about the usual Image bullshit but let the city know you’re there.”
“I can use explosions?” Hype asked, a bit of excitement in her tone. It was a strange juxtaposition to the tone of the room, or at least the tone I felt.
“Not near people, but sure. You know the rules.”
“Magnum, get some rest. You and me are up bright and early. Knockoff, you and Mirage will cover tomorrow afternoon. Be visible—” he said, speaking to the stealth Tinker and the girl with social anxiety. “—and do the best you can.
“We’re all trying to avoid fights where we can, let PPB handle the smallfries. Cascadians are out of town still, the Teamsters just had a couple heavy hitters arrested thanks to Knockoff here,” Hotshot, who’d done basically all of the work there, said. “Our big concern is Burnsiders. Call for backup the second you see them or groups of their thugs. They’ll be looking to capitalize on this, especially once they hear the Protectorate’s been gutted.”
Hotshot took a deep breath. “Anyway, that’s what it’ll look like until things calm down. We’ll switch things up to keep the villains on their toes, but look forward to two days on patrol then one day off. Any questions?”
The room was silent. I had about a billion, but I couldn’t get past mentally forming one or two words right now. There was just that… numb feeling. Part of me wondered it it was aftereffects of Flamewar’s power, or just shock from the news. Probably both.
“Huh?” I said, looking up. The rest of the team was gone, except Hotshot, who was looking at me with concern. “What’s up?”
“You should talk to a therapist,” he said, voice quiet.
“Today, all of it, I mean. Alexandria just died, your mind got taken over, and you’re over your head. Things will be hectic, but please promise me you’ll talk to them? They’re right downstairs…”
“Yeah, I’ll set something up,” I said after a pause. He was right, I wasn’t equipped for this. Still, I’d never talked to a shrink before, and the idea made my butthole clench with anxiety. How the fuck was I supposed to talk to someone about fixing my head, if my head made me terrified of talking to them?
“Okay,” Hotshot said, giving me a thumbs-up before walking away. Alone again. I rested my head on the table, not sure what to do. I was still long enough for the motion sensor to turn off the lights, leaving me bathed only in the blueish light of the mission control wall thing.
Eventually I went back to my room— Recoil’s room—and switched back into my normal clothes. My flannel of the day did a decent job hiding the burns on my arm.
Sergeant Cooper said something to me in the elevator, but I didn’t hear it. Out the door. Waiting for the train. Staring blankly out the windows at the city passing by. Hearing the faint thud in the distance of Hypothermia’s explosions propelling her over the city. Passing through the big tunnel. Getting off. Walking the last mile home. Closing the front door behind me.
“Sara! Where have you been all night?” Mom’s voice shouted. She was supposed to be working tonight, I thought, as she appeared in the hallway. “Sara, what’s wrong?”
“Hey,” I said, kicking my shoes off at the door. I could feel her eyes on me, as I walked into the living room, plopped down on the couch. Dad was snoring in his chair, Lily sleeping on his chest as golf reruns played on the TV. The only betrayal that things weren’t ordinary was… me. The itch under the bandages, the numb feeling.
Mom sat next to me, a thick arm pulling me into a hug. Asking me if I was okay. Telling me it would be okay. Saying she loved me.
I’d never been more grateful to cry into her shoulder.
Chapter 8: Memories: Lana
They were right.
I was sitting in the breakroom, shivering under about a billion towels, still reeking of containment foam. Like it was my fault the elevator had decided I was a Stranger or something. For what felt like hours I’d been stuck in there, face smushed against the wall, barely able to breathe. And what had I gotten for it? I’d gotten laughed at by the Wards.
It was bullshit. My first real day in my dream job working for the PRT, and this was what happened. At least the PRT officer who helped me had been nice. Really, everyone had been nice to me… except the Wards.
The door opened, and I looked up, expecting to see the nice officer with the change of clothes she’d left to grab. My heart sunk.
“Hey,” Recoil said, closing the door behind him. He had his shotgun slung, unmasked as always. I looked away. Maybe if I wasn’t such a fuckup I would’ve had the balls to at least look him in the eyes.
There was a scrape of a chair, and Recoil plopped down next to me, setting his monstrous gun between us. There was quiet for a bit, me sitting there like an idiot, trying not to make my shivering from the confoam too obvious, him just… sitting there.
Finally, he spoke. “Don’t worry about them.”
I snorted. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” To think a day ago I would’ve been ecstatic to talk to a Ward in person. Funny how one or two things could sour that excitement.
Recoil sighed. “Look, if you’re gonna be an asshole to me too, I’ll go. I’m being nice.”
I looked up at him, meeting his gaze for the first time. He didn’t look happy. I shrugged. “You don’t have to be. It’s not like you’ll ever see me again.”
“The fuck makes you think that? Because some kids made fun of you for an accident?”
“It’s my first day!” I cried out, trying not to laugh at the absurdity of this shitshow. “I just got this job and I fuck this up? I’m just here waiting for HR to come by and tell me not to bother coming in tomorrow.”
“They ain’t gonna do that,” Recoil replied.
“What makes you say that?”
“They just ain’t. You’re being silly. That elevator’s messed up anyway. Been telling them since I started.”
Maybe… maybe he was right? If he was, it’d be fine, I’d just have to avoid the Wards for the rest of my life. Easy enough, right? “Okay,” I finally said, quietly.
“I’m Recoil, by the way.” He stuck out a hand. Slowly, I reached out a confoam-inundated hand and shook it.
My dad told me once about rubber duck debugging. It was something nerds did when they were programming. Talk the duck through what you were doing, teach it about your code or whatever, and you’d help figure out any issues.
“...anyway I’m thinkin’, if I put that in it’ll act as a sorta grenade or somethin’ and…”
One thing had led to another, and now I was spending my lunch on the roof while Recoil used me as his rubber duck. I felt about as smart as the duck.
Still, even if I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about, it was nice listening to him. Ulysses had… something about his voice always felt honest and reassuring. He seemed like the type of person who’d be a horrible liar if he tried. Maybe that really meant he was an extra-good liar though. Either way, it was relaxing. I couldn’t help but smile.
“Oh, hi?” I said, with a blush. I hadn’t even realized he’d stopped talking about Tinker bullshit.
“I was asking how your writing was going,” he replied with a snort, stealing one of my shitty PRT cafeteria chips with a smirk.
“Oh! It’s, um, going okay I guess. I’m kinda stuck on a bit.” I shrugged.
“You wanna talk about it?”
“Huh? Oh, I mean, I wouldn’t want to bug you with it…” I trailed off, stealing one of his shitty PRT cafeteria french fries.
“I just spent ten minutes rambling ’bout exploding shotgun shells. What’s your story ‘bout?”
I hesitated. “It’s… well, the story I’ve been working on lately is about two… co-workers, falling for each other. Except one of them’s forgotten how to love, and the other is… they’ve got other stuff going on.” Hopefully that was vague enough. I pulled out my phone, opening up my draft and scrolling to the point I was stuck and staring at the cursor blankly. “I guess I just wrote myself into a corner.”
“Mind if I take a look?”
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. I glanced over at him, then back at my phone. Should I?... But Ulysses was my friend, right? But what if he hated it? But what if he told Chain Link and Ley Line that I was writing porn of them on the internet?
...But what if he didn’t tell them? What if it was our little secret? We could share knowing glances whenever Chain commented on Ley Line’s pants choice of the day, or spend slow afternoons thinking up ship names for his teammates, or… a whole universe of possibilities opened up.
I handed him the phone. He started scrolling through, sipping on his smoothie. Then his eyes widened, and he set the smoothie down on the ledge. Scrolling intensified, his eyes getting wider with each passing line of text.
Finally, Ulysses spoke. “I… does he even have one? Wouldn’t it just be a bit of chain?”
“Artistic license,” I muttered, shame turning my face a bright red.
He paused for a second, then nodded. “Yeah, I could see it I guess.”
There was another long moment as he scanned the page. Then his thumb moved, and before I could say anything, he’d tapped on one of the links in my signature.
“Uh,” I said, with characteristic eloquence.
“Cutting Edge and,” he paused. “What’s rule sixty three?”
“Uh.” I paused. “Um… make them a girl? Or a boy, if they were a girl. Genderbending, y’know?”
“And you can just do that? Like, how would that even...”
“I mean…” I trailed off. “I just thought it would be cuter if Flamewar was a girl, so I made him one. It’s not like the Teamsters read their own fanfiction.” Unless they did. I mean, Flamewar was one of those names that clearly was inspired by the Internet…. Oh god.
“So if you just think someone would be cuter, you can just write them being a girl.” Recoil said, snapping me out of my spiral of shame.
“Yup!” I grinned. “Genderbent fanfiction is the best. Lotta people say it’s trashy, but they’re stupid.”
“What would it—fuck, this is gonna sound stupid. Would you write me genderbent?”
I blinked. Then I blinked again. “Um… sure I guess?” Wait, was he…? “... do you want me to?”
“I’m curious. I, fuck, I dunno.” He was almost glaring at my phone. “It was stupid. Whatever. Shut up.”
I… okay. “Ulysses, do you want to be genderbent I-R-L?”
“The fuck does that—is that the fucking tax people? What do they have to—”
I cut him—them?—off. “In real life, dipshit. Are you, uh…” What was the term? I wiggled my fingers. “Switching?”
“I guess I would if it was, like, a thing I could do. But, fuck, it’s not like that’s—I’m a guy, you know? Fuck. At least back in the swamp I didn’t have to think about this shit.”
“That’s totally a thing you can do, yo. Like, people do it all the time, it’s all the rage. Don’t ask me how, but like. Pills and shit that make you a girl? I mean, you already have the hair for it.” Wait, swamp? Shit, so he—they—were legit a feral swamp child, and they still had better hair than me? Fuck my life.
“I—thanks.” They looked up at the sky. “Who do I even fucking talk to about it? I don’t want my fucking counselor to throw me back out there because I’m a nut.”
“Wanting to get rid of your nuts doesn’t make you a nut,” I quipped. Wait, that’s probably not something I should say. Fuck. Aaaaaaaaaa! “I mean, um…”
They barked out a short laugh. “Okay. Maybe I’ll just ask. Even if I do get thrown out on my ass, I can make it out there. Did it before, can do it again.”
I gave them—her!—a hug. “The PRT is, like, hella cool with it, I think. I mean plus you’re a Ward, if they try anything can’t you go yell at the uhhh Youth Guard people?” I wasn’t exactly sure what all the Youth Guard did or how they worked, but from an intern’s-eye-view into their office that seemed like something they’d love to stop.
She returned the hug. “If you say so.”
“Hey, where are you?” I shouted into my phone, the din around me making it nearly impossible to hear my own voice, much less Lana’s.
“Pioneer Square. Where the hell are you?”
“Well shit, stand on something and holler, would ya?”
“Seriously?” I looked around, spotting a garbage can, the kind with a sturdy metal cage around it so nobody could steal the can or whatever. I clambered atop it, desperately hoping the guys nearby were at Pride because they were gay, not bi. I picked a random direction to wave in, hoping I’d stick out among the crowd. “Can you see me?”
“Keep waving would ya?”
“Oh god I’m sorry!” I spun around, looking for any sign of Lana, waving my spare hand like an absolute moron. “Anything?”
“Yeah,” I heard Lana say behind me. I spun around, to see her, grinning like a fool. “Found ya.”
“You ass!” I shouted, jumping off the can with a flourish of rainbows.
“Hey, you’re the one who kept waving.”
“You told me to!”
She snorted, grabbing me into a tight squeeze of a hug. “C’mon, I don’t wanna miss my first Pride.”
“Yeah, definitely!” I laughed. And then it hit me.
Lana was in her usual not-exactly-ladylike ensemble, coat and all, but she’d added something. A pink, blue, and white flag, tied around her neck like a cape. That color was… oh? “Wait, are you… is it time?” She’d said she was too anxious to come out, but had still wanted to go.
“Fuck it, it’s time,” she said with a laugh, looking me over, or more specifically looked over my rainbow fishnets, rainbowey skirt, and pan-colored shirt. “Wait… are you…?”
“Pan? Yeah,” I said with a laugh, giving her a hug. “God, I’m so proud for you Lana, this is gonna be so awesome!”
Lana snorted. “I was so wrapped up in me coming out and shit I didn’t even think about you being the one who wanted to go in the first place. Oh, but it’s Recoil. Cape mode.” She lifted up the trans flag/cape to show her shotgun slung across her back. I was so used to its neverending presence, I hadn’t even noticed.
Others had, though, and I guess I just hadn’t noticed them either but there were some schmucks with cameras taking pictures of us, and I could see what looked like a news crew approaching, apparently a cape coming out was more interesting than recording the perennial Pride protesters.
“Sorry. Speaking of which, company coming,” I said apologetically, gesturing at the camera crew.
“Fuck ‘em. Let’s go check it out.” Recoil grabbed my hand and dragged me into the crowd.
The next few hours were… well, amazing was the word. We’d grabbed rainbow-flavored ice cream, Recoil’d taken some pictures with fans, I’d bought some trans-colored flowers to stick in her hair. We found ourselves awhile later, in the midst of a sea of Portland food trucks, waiting in line for grilled cheeses. I found myself swallowing the nervous lump in my throat. Recoil found herself looking at me with a weird look. “You okay Sara?”
“Yeah… I just wanted to ask you something.”
Are you really going to do this, Sara? “I was, uh, wondering if…” Deep breath. “Well, let me put it this way. If I were to write a shipfic featuring you and my self-insert, would that be okay?”
Recoil shrugged. “I don’t know what that is, but sure.”
“I… I… okay, cool.” My face was approximately the temperature of a fusing sun, I could tell, but suddenly I was grabbing her hand, squeezing it tightly. There was a reassuring squeeze in response. She looked over at me. I looked up at her. Our eyes met. I smiled, and so did she. I leaned closer. Her phone rang, and suddenly she was pulling away, the hand that had held mine now sliding into a jacket pocket.
“Oh, it’s the Deputy Director. I gotta get this, it could be… work stuff.”
“Oh… yeah, sure. I’ll grab our food, don’t worry,” I waved her off, sad that the moment was so short.
And then it went from the best day ever to one of the worst.
Chapter 9: The Growth Spurt: Part One
People always say the sea smells lovely.
The sea smells like a salty asshole and old fish and the stink of dying coast towns that relied on tourism that stopped happening twenty years ago.
It was the kind of diner that obviously catered to old people and their fetish with things being the way they were back in their day. The kind where a forty-year old waitress would take your order with a water-damaged pad using a chewed-up pencil that got stabbed back into a bun when it wasn’t being clutched by inch-long manicured talons.
For what it was worth, our waitress’s name was Martha and she didn’t seem to mind that three of the “big city heroes” had come in to sit down. I ordered bacon and eggs, and she called me “hon” and said something about bringing me extra bacon to “put meat on those bones, you tiny thing.”
“When are they even supposed to be here?” I groaned, looking around at the empty diner with its giant Oregon map and wall full of rusty license plates and a jukebox that stopped working sometime around the fourth century BC.
Hotshot shrugged, taking a sip from his coffee, which was immediately refilled by a swooping Martha. “We’re early anyway.”
Mirage made a groaning sound next to me, curled up in the corner with his invisibility cloak hiding everything but his face. Migraine, he’d said. I’d suggested he stay at the hotel but we needed the bodies.
The door opened, bells jingling. Three people walked in, all wearing costumes. I could hear Martha make a distressed squeak. Atropos, Caldera, and Vermilion. The three Cascadians we’d been sent here to meet. Villains.
“You sure this is a good idea?” I muttered.
“Big Sister says they’re legit,” Hotshot murmured back to me, before standing and offering the supervillains a handshake. Introductions were had and pleasantries were exchanged, like we weren’t all sworn enemies. They sat across from us, three on each side of the booth.
Martha took their orders.
“We know this is a difficult situation for you,” Atropos said once the clearly-terrified lady scuttled off with their order. Her costume reminded me of an owl, long flowey sleeves in mottled brown and grey, little feather-like cuts at the end hiding her hands. A big, enveloping hood topped with little ear-things. No mask, just freckles, long brown hair, and piercing blue eyes.
“It is what it is,” Hotshot replied. “So. You mind filling us in?”
There were “big” apartment buildings, tall structures that went up maybe ten floors tops, and there were “little” ones only a couple stories high. This one was something in between, four stories of dilapidated brick and plaster. A pair of trucks with police lights sat in the parking lot amongst the rusted sedans and abandoned bicycles. Someone had smashed one of their windows in to grab a roll of police tape, and used that to cordon off the building.
“This is where he lives,” Atropos said, gesturing at the structure. Far enough that the fishy ocean smell didn’t bother me, but there was… something else coming from the building. The smell of week-old bread that hadn’t been put in the fridge. “Sheriff came in, didn’t come out. I guess they called in the city cops too, their cars are on the other side. Same thing.”
“This feels like a trap,” Mirage muttered. I didn’t disagree.
“You said this guy was supposed to be a new recruit?” Hotshot said, looking over at the Cascadians.
“Is. Maybe a month or so. This… isn’t what his power has functioned like in the past.”
“How many people?” I heard myself ask.
Atropos’s gaze settled on me, sharp, like I was the mouse she was getting ready to swallow and poop out a skeletonized pellet of in like a month. “Maybe thirty or so, as far as we can tell? Plus the cops and Diaspore.”
My extra helping of bacon wanted to come up. Thirty-plus people in there, trapped or worse.
“We don’t like this situation either,” Vermilion spoke up, the first time I’d heard her voice since the introductions at breakfast. Soft, the exact opposite voice I’d expect from someone with a cherry-red and silver costume. “He’s our teammate.”
Mirage sighed and/or groaned, piping up in a tired voice, “For all we know this is some villainous scheme gone wrong.”
Atropos raised an eyebrow. “We’re here under a white flag, there’s no need for that, boy. You know our MO isn’t hurting innocents.”
Hotshot held up his hand. “We don’t even know what’s going on in there. You said you had pictures?”
Atropos held out a cell phone, and we all glanced down. Shitty cell-phone pictures, clearly taken through one of the ground floor windows. It was blurry, but I could see a pair of bodies on the ground, another sitting at the couch. Everything was greyish and foggy, hard to see details. They all looked like they had a fine layer of dust on them.
“Torch the place then,” Hotshot said, sighing. “It’s awful, but we can’t bring back the dead. Have your fuccboi here toss some fireballs and be done with it.”
“Oh, piss off,” Caldera muttered, at the same time Atropos shook her head. “They’re alive. It’s just… hibernation of some sort. We’re not sure what, exactly.”
“How close can you get?” I asked. “Those are taken through the window, is it safe?”
“For short periods, maybe,” Atropos replied, looking me over. “Why?”
I didn’t respond, instead taking a deep breath and ducking under the police tape. I walked through the parking lot, hoping this wasn’t a fuckall stupid idea. Far enough away that the buzzing in my head from being around five other capes started to fade.
By the time I was standing at the entrance, a new, weaker buzzing had returned. That must’ve been Diaspore. There was something odd about the buzzing though, a presence that felt… weird. Not that I had much experience with my power ever being normal, though. I put it out of my mind for now.
The windows were covered in grey now, as well as the entrance. Someone—one of the Cascadians presumably—had stuffed towels and rags around the edges of the door. Keeping it in?
My walk back to the capes was quicker than my walk there, to say the least.
“He’s alive,” I panted. “I could feel him in there. Alive but… not normal.”
Atropos glanced at Hotshot, who shrugged. “Knockoff’s power helps her sense nearby capes. Don’t worry about it.”
She sighed. “Look. You guys have resources, with cops and shit. Please, help us fix this. Arrest us if you want afterwards, but those people are alive and need help. We’ve exhausted our options.”
Hotshot sighed. “Alright. We’ll treat this like an Endbringer truce, no shenanigans or plots. I’ll call our Director, but he should be fine with this, and we’ll see what we can come up with.”
“Thank God,” Vermilion whispered. “The Protectorate will know what to do.”
“Uh, about that…” Mirage trailed off…
“Oh, you are fucking kidding me,” Atropos growled.
Chapter 10: The Growth Spurt: Part Two
The field office up in Tillamook County didn’t have any sort of Tinker nest, so it had taken a flash of Hotshot’s PRT expense card to get Mirage and me working. A slipshod computer repair shop, nestled between the diner from before and an auto body garage. Apparently the owner decided that staying home a couple hundred bucks richer was better than sitting at a counter on the off chance a tourist wanted sand cleaned out of their smartphone.
Venue aside, I’d decided Atropos’s power would make a fine addition to my collection, so I’d persuaded her to tag along with me. Thankfully, I still had dregs of powers from the rest of the Portland heroes, so hopefully what I had in mind wouldn’t fail spectacularly. Ley Line and Riftwatcher, combined with the splash of Atropos I’d committed myself to collecting. She was sulking next to me, playing a game on her phone between glancing at me while I worked. You know, that look.
Yeah, I don’t like being stuck in a room with you either, asshole.
At the front of the shop, there was the sound of the front door opening. “Dinner!” Mirage shouted. A second later he walked into the back, carrying in a box full of what looked like congealed grease but apparently was fish and chips. With him was a shyly smiling Vermilion, who had a couple two-liter bottles of soda.
It was a good chance for me to stand and stretch and take a break from the soldering and programming and all that other Tinker stuff. Atropos, meanwhile, took it as a sign to stop glowering at me, switching targets to Mirage. Whatever. She didn’t look at Hotshot that way, so maybe it was a Tinker thing.
I pushed my tinkering out of the way and grabbed one of the baskets of fried heart disease, checking PHO on my phone idly. The Portland threads were quiet, the last big cape news having been my thing last week with Flamewar. Skullfucker had robbed another gas station, the thread photo there was a pixelated security camera image of her shooting a finger gun at the terrified overnight pump jockey while slurping a soda. Classy. I switched over to the national forum, and…
“Oh wow,” I muttered under my breath.
“What’s wrong?” Vermillion said, her voice barely audible. I glanced over and she nearly hid behind a bottle of soda. You’d think a supervillain would be less shy.
“Uhhh, just this thread on PHO. A Ward back east stopped doing appearances, PRT didn’t say why. Someone wrote a fanfic where they died fighting Leviathan.”
“So? People write… lots of fanfics.” There was a quiet horror in Vermilion’s voice. Having seen some of the shipfics written about the Pacific Northwest’s favorite ecoterrorists, I didn’t blame her.
“Well… That was what happened. The guy requested not being put on any memorials. Someone guessed correctly.”
“Jesus,” Mirage muttered. “Some deputy Image director is having a bad day.”
“They’re calling it a cover-up, and more besides. How dumb would you have to be to not say anything? Good god.”
“That’s heroes for you,” Atropos quipped.
“Didn’t you try to bomb an oil refinery?” Mirage cut in.
“It was a terminal, not a refinery, and we didn’t try .”
“Oh, okay, that’s so much better.”
“Guys,” I cut in. “Can we, like, not?”
“Fine,” Atropos and Mirage said at the same time.
There was a bit of an awkward silence, interrupted only by the crinkle of grease-soaked paper and the glug-glug-glug of soda being drained from the giant bottles into little paper cups with chibi superheroes waving at us.
I guess it was stuck in my head a little. The paperwork for Wards to be part of the Endbringer response was still sitting on my desk at work. I had no problem going, even if my power was completely useless against a fucking Endbringer , but realistically there was no other way I’d meet Alexan—
“So what’re ya making?” Mirage asked me suddenly, breaking me from the… from my thoughts.
“Oh, um. Well I figure we’ll need a better look inside, but that means going inside, so I’m going for a sorta time-warp effect thing? I dunno if it’ll work but…”
“Time warping?” Atropos asked. “How’s that supposed to help?”
I sighed. Not everyone was a Tinker. “Okay. Atropos, time dilation bubble that’s impossible to escape from. That’s your power, right?”
“Something like that.”
“Okay. Has anything ever gotten through your bubble in the history of forever?”
“No?” she said, not exactly picking up on it. She wasn’t being entirely honest, when I was doing research on the drive over from Portland, I’d found footage of her shooting a laser rifle of some sort through the bubble. Probably trying to keep that little card up her sleeve.
“Well, I doubt even an Endbringer could get through that bubble, based on what my power is telling me and what I’ve seen on PHO. So! Something that powerful suggests to me there’s some sort of dimensional warping, that in reality the walls of your bubble are just… like a periscope on a sub, letting you see through.” I took a deep breath. “Riftwatcher’s power cracks open other dimensions to look through—”
“Wait what?” Fuck, I forgot that was something we weren’t exactly supposed to be talking about. Now Mirage was giving me a look. Shit! Fuck!
“Don’t worry about it. Now Ley Line, well, he’s at his core a precog, right? Seeing the lines of fate. When I first got my powers, I was hanging out with him and made a camera that could see into the future. So! Put it all together, time manipulation plus a precog makes a postcog, crack the bubble’s dimensional periscope power and connect it to the past!”
“Makes sense,” Mirage mumbled, his mouth full of fish.
“The fuck it does,” Atropos cut in, glancing between us. “My power doesn’t… go back in time, it slows it down or speeds it up.”
I sighed. “Yes. That’s why I’m inverting it.”
“I feel like I should be offended at what you’re doing to my power.”
“Listen. It’s fine. Besides, it’s less your power, and more… like, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what it is I do, and as best I can tell, like… okay, so imagine your power, now imagine a Tinker version of it.”
“Whatever. As long as it works, and gets us an idea on how to save those people.”
We drifted back into silence. Atropos was on her phone while taking a bite here and there, Mirage was glancing between me and the Tinker stuff, and Vermilion was…
The fleeting glances at Mirage, the slightly dreamy look, the glance away when he noticed… it was so obvious!
“Wassup?” he mumbled through a face full of potato. Hopeless, absolutely hopeless.
“You want to take your turn at the bench?”
“Oh uhhh sure yeah, haha. I wanted to show you some—”
“Cool I was gonna head out with Owlface over here—” Atropos threw a fry at me. “—and check out the, uh, point of interest.”
“Ah. Um, maybe later then?”
“Awesome! Atty, come on!” I heard her say something irritating, but instead of listening I grabbed my stuff and went for the door. A moment later, an exasperated villain was walking out, holding a liter of pop in one hand and a basket of fish in the other. A minute after that, we were pulling out, in the cramped confines of one of the Cascadians’ cars—I got the impression it wasn’t Atty’s, both from the fact that it took her a decade and a half to adjust the seat up, and because there was when she hit a speed bump the glovebox popped open and some porno magazines popped out. Really, she seemed more like the hentai type of girl.
“What the fuck was that about?” she said as we turned onto the main road, glancing over as I was stuffing the porn back into the glovebox. I could feel judgement.
“What do you mean?”
“That was a fucking abrupt escape, don’t ya think? Cut the shit.”
I sighed. “Fine. It’s Vermilion. She likes Mirage.”
“What, you can’t tell?”
“You’re imagining shit.”
“You didn’t see the way she was looking at him? Come on.”
“He was looking at you like that!”
Ugh, of course she’d notice that . “Yeah, but I’m not interested.”
“No shit, there’s people in Seattle who picked that up when you sprinted away.”
“I didn’t sprint!”
“You know what I mean. But no. Fuck no. You are not setting up Vermilion with your boyfriend.”
I ignored the nauseatingly horrific dig there at the end. “Why not? It’s a cute ship.”
Atropos made a gagging sound at that. “Well, I can think of one good reason. He’s a fuckin’ hero . So are you! You’re trying to set up your teammate with a villain!”
“Romeo was a villain but Juliet still got with him! Stop trying to get in the way of teenage love.”
“Why is Romeo the villain?”
“He just is, okay?” I rolled my eyes and grabbed the bottle of soda.
“That… idiotic idea aside, it’s… it’s just not going to work. What if… for fuck’s sake Knockoff, what if he gets her pregnant or—”
Someone, not me, definitely not me, left a spray of Diet Coke on the inside of the windshield.
“WHAT THE HELL ATROPOS? I’M NOT TRYING TO GET THEM TO FUCK?”
“And yet you’re… trying to ship them? What if it works, and now you have… you have a teammate in cahoots with your enemy, and next time we’re in Portland you know they’re going to… do things, and then we both have a big fucking problem.”
“Listen, it’s… it’ll be fine. She’s the one who’s interested in him, anyway.”
“Wait.” Atty’s voice had shifted from exasperated to serious. “She’s the one putting on moves?”
“I said that before, she was looking at him all lovey-dovey and shit. Totally obvious.”
There was a lurch and a screech of tires as Atropos jerked the wheel to the side, slamming on the brakes and leaving us in someone’s driveway. We were stuck like that for a second, the villain glaring out the window white-knuckled. The radio went from bigots shouting at each other about brown people to static, and the world outside kinda… shimmered?
And here I’d gone and left my laser pistol on the workbench.
“Knockoff, I’m only going to say this once.” Atropos had a dark tone in her voice. She turned to face me, but I couldn’t see her eyes in the depths of her costume’s hood. “For both their sakes, if Vermilion is looking at your friend, keep them apart.”
What the fuck?
“…Why?” I asked, worried.
“She’s going to get herself hurt, and when she does that Mirage will be in a very bad situation.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t need to know the details. Power stuff. All you need to know is that she’s the closest thing I have to a little sister, and if she fucks up going after him, I’m going to hold you personally responsible.”
“Just fucking nod and never mention this conversation.”
Just as suddenly as they’d gone, the bigots on the radio came back, and Atropos was backing out of the driveway. “Cool!”
But it was not cool.
The next afternoon, I was outside the apartment building, with everyone assembled. Mirage and I were busy connecting the last bits of equipment together. It was like a net of field projectors covering my entire body, plugged into my still-work-in-progesss armor here and there. When it was turned on, I’d have… oh, half an hour or so to run in and see what’s up. A bit janky, but it only had to work for a little bit.
On the other end of the lot, Hotshot and Caldera were setting up what I supposed was some sort of airlock over the door of the building, some sort of plastic they’d cobbled together and melted to the wall and sidewalk and everything else to make a little covered area to wash all the… the whatever the fuck off. Just in case.
I was actually doing this. Fuck me.
“You okay?” Mirage asked.
“Yeah,” I lied, shaking my head to clear it and getting back to plugging wires into the power cell.
“You’re gonna be fine, Sara,” he said, quietly enough that the two supervillains nearby couldn’t hear. “If anyone can do this, it’s you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“… Nothing. Just… you’ll be fine.”
I gave him the barest hint of a smile, even if he was a dork, at least he was a nice dork. “Hopefully.”
It was a good spot in the conversation to ride off into the metaphorical sunset, but reality wasn’t like that, and we had to spend five or ten more minutes getting everything right and fiddling with it. But eventually, all the nodes—over a hundred of them, scattered equally across my body to provide coverage—had happy green smiley faces on my phone’s tinkertech status… thing.
It was a long walk over to the entrance, metaphorically speaking. Everyone was looking at me, it felt like, and my heart was beating a million miles a minute. Hotshot met me almost all the way there, wordlessly grabbing the gas mask attached to my belt it helping put it on my face while Caldera politely looked the other way. The mask was a relic we’d found in the back room of the Tillamook PRT office, probably leftover from a world war or something. A last-ditch countermeasure, in case the tech failed. Unfortunately it smelled like cat piss, but that was the price I had to pay.
“Radio check?” he said, coming from his face and moments later from my earpiece to make an annoying echo.
“Knockoff here, coming in fine.” There wasn’t much point to a radio check, with the way the field worked I’d be transmitting to another dimension, but the growing familiarity with the check was welcome today.
“You sure you’re up for this? Nobody’s going to blame you if…” Hotshot trailed off, but the comms version of his voice continued broadcasting for a second or so longer, dead air picked up by the mic hidden in the frame of his sunglasses.
“Someone’s gotta do it,” I replied, swallowing the lump in my throat.
He looked like he was about to say something, but instead he just nodded. I gave him a smile I didn’t really feel, that he couldn’t see through the gas mask, and stepped into the makeshift airlock.
Behind me Hotshot sealed the edges of the plastic with his power, a quiet fwoosh sound that abruptly cut off when he was done. “You’re good to go,” he said, his actual voice a quiet inverse echo I could barely hear now.
I figured I should probably reply with something, but I didn’t know what, so instead I switched the tech on and—
There was a buzz, a shimmering sound, a faint glow between me and the front door of the apartment complex. I glanced behind me, and saw Hotshot and the others were gone. There were a couple kids playing in the parking lot, and the sun was coming down. Everything was distorted slightly, the colors just a little off, oranges and yellows turning redder and blues turning violet.
I walked back into the parking lot, looking around. The kids stopped to look at me, so I waved at them. They didn’t wave back. Oof, whatever.
In any case, it was too normal, too regular. I was too early.
I poked at my phone, adjusting parameters I didn’t really understand, changing the values of one-letter variables that were supposed to manipulate the field, the reality outside, and yoink me through time like anal beads yeeted out of a pornstar’s butthole with the gusto of a middle-aged man pull-starting his twenty-year-old lawn mower. I hit the button, and reality shifted again…
It was darkness now, the side of the building illuminated solely by the flickering blue and red of police lights. The kids were gone, the cars in the lot in different positions then they’d been seconds ago. Four figures in police uniforms were walking into the building, their mouths covered with their arms and flashlights in their free hands.
Too late? No, I could jump around all I wanted, but at this point… I didn’t want to push my luck by jumping through time too much. I gave the cops a minute, and then followed them in. Even opening the front door into the building felt weird, pulling the handle felt like I was doing so through thick mittens made of electricity.
The fuzz was mostly gone, here in the past, but it was deathly quiet other than the cops talking at the top of a small staircase. They disappeared further inside, and I slunk up the stairs after them, waiting halfway up so they wouldn’t see me.
I heard them knocking on doors, and then the sound of wood splintering as it sounded like they bodyslammed a door in. My breath felt hot in the stupid gas mask as I waited…
Fuck it. I poked my head up, the hallway was empty, a line of footprints leading through the thin layer of dust and into one of the apartments. This didn’t feel good, if I was being honest with myself. But I had to know what had happened, in order to stop it… somehow. Fuck.
Just as I tiptoed the rest of the way to the door, I caught their voices again. Coughing, a pained sound, and…
“Get out!” one of them shouted, and footsteps came my way. Shit! Fuck! Nowhere in the hallway to hide, and—
A cop popped out of the doorway, right fucking in front of me, gun drawn. He saw me, and his eyes widened. I threw my hands up, started to say I was a hero—
His gun erupted in a thunderous explosion, something hit my chest, hard enough to make me stagger back. Another shot, a third, forcing me back into the wall.
Fuck. Fuck! My ears were filled with the sound of alarms, my tech failing, the bubble starting to rupture. There was a wet feeling under my armor…
Everything shifted around me again, and I realized I was mashing the controls for the bubble. The apartment disappeared into a cascade of chaotic light around me, flickering golden…
I fell to my knees, white sand sizzling as the energy of my bubble melted it, everything was flickering still, but through it I could see… the ocean?
With a wince I pulled the stupid gas mask off, trying to calm down. When I let go of it it fell out of the bubble, landing on the shore next to me, smoking. My armor had three holes in it, leaking red. A lot of red.
“Fuck!” I managed, coughing. Jesus fucking christ, what was I thinking? I had to get back from… wherever this was. Where had I even gone? I had to get back, get help.
I looked up from the sand. It was sunset, the calm ocean painting an orangish scene that in any other circumstances would have been fantastic. Off the shore, a figure stood, a being a hundred feet tall with a lion’s mane made of crystal. Maybe knee deep, just standing there.
Whatever the fuck it was, I wanted nothing to do with it.
My phone had smears of blood on it, from when I’d panic-teleported. I wiped it off on my patchwork cloak, took a deep breath (FUCK that hurt), and started adjusting parameters again. It was now according to my tech, but this wasn’t home. A different earth. Aleph maybe? Did they have Endbringer-sized…
Fuck my life, if that’s…
Close enough. I activated the teleporter thingy. Anywhere else but here.
It flickered, more this time, shifting between realities…
I was standing in a field of tall grass, it was bright as hell. Summer, wherever it was. There was shouting behind me, and slowly I turned around…
Five people, fighting… some sort of robot? No, capes? Capes! Some kid on a hoverboard, some…Changers? One was made of lightning and another was some sort of monster thing… and… wait.
“Recoil!” I shouted. She was shooting the robot, but my voice made her turn…
She saw me, her eyes widened, and she started running towards me… shouting…
The flickering picked up again. No. No! Fuck! My phone was useless now, the screen flickering between the Tinker app full of neon-red error messages and the lock screen.
Frantically I tried adjusting shit, trying to guide the flickers, but all I did was make more messages appear that I couldn’t understand. I could tell I was losing energy quick, my hands moving slower, my thoughts slowing. The pain was getting worse.
The flickering stopped, and with a sizzle, my phone died. I didn’t need the status LEDs to know the bubble generators had gone with it.
I was standing in a darkened apartment. The air tasted of month-old bread, every surface covered in fuzz.
My knees hit the ground, the air was thick as soup, making me cough, which only made the pain worse. A cloud of dust rose up around me, flecks of it sticking to the blood running down my chestplate.
I was tired, so tired.
It was a living room, maybe. Someone was sitting on the couch, sleeping. Head craned over the back cushion like my dad an hour into watching golf on a lazy Sunday. Mushrooms were sticking out of his mouth, bright red with zebra stripes in black.
As I watched, one of the mushrooms popped, filling the air with more dust.
Not dust. Spores. Duh.
The dust exploded around me as I fell back the rest of the way. It settled on the sweat covering my face, and I closed my eyes.
At least I’d seen Recoil one last time.