Never 1-Vignette




Put It All Behind Us.

1 & 1/2 years ago, or thereabouts.

The old warehouse looked like it was on the verge of falling apart. Metal sheeting hung loosely from the roof, often held on by a single join. The windows that weren't broken were dirty with years of grime, and the walls seemed to almost be crumpling under their own weight. And if that wasn't enough, every single one of the buildings on either side of it looked exactly the same, stretched out in an unbroken line of griminess. 

Though, Flint Perez mused as he inspected the building from the top of the apartment block opposite, that might have been the point. No-one had probably been to this area of the docks in years, and even if someone did come by, they wouldn't expect anyone to be inside the abandoned warehouses. In another area of the city, there might have been squatters, drug dealers and 31 different flavors of criminal, but a combination of the nearby upscale districts and their prevalence of law enforcement officers, along with recent developments in the area, meant that Lakeside Avenue was a crime-free area. 

Flint glanced at his watch. 18:55, it flashed at him muted LED: five minutes left. He'd been waiting in his vantage point for nearly an hour now, and not a single person had shown up. No pedestrians, no cops, but more importantly, no other costumes. Either none of the supposed others had shown up early, or they'd found better vantage points than he had. 

Or, of course, the whole thing could be a trap. He'd been tossing up the possibility in his head for the last couple of days, ever since the encounter with the woman in white. On one hand, it was incredibly suspicious. A random costume approaching him while he was patrolling, acting like she knew him and then inviting him to a meeting? Flint may not have gotten the best grades, but he was far from stupid, and the whole thing set alarms bells going in his head. On the other hand, though... the way she'd talked, about doing something bigger, helping more people... he considered himself a pretty good people reader, and to him, she'd been completely and utterly sincere. Despite himself, he'd decided that he'd at least listen to what she had to say. And if it was a trap?

His fingers tightened around the handle of the short sword at his side. If it was a trap, she was going to wish she'd never tried it. 

The watch beeped as it ticked over to 7:00, and there was still no one present. He absentmindedly ran a hand through his dreadlocks, pushing them back beneath his hood, and blew out a blast of air through his nose. He'd decided he wasn't going to be the first one in, and he was willing to deal with being late. Better to be seen as tardy to walk into a trap. 

A humid summer breeze rolled over his neck, tinged with the slightest dusk chill. Just a few hundred feet past the warehouse, the sun's last rays glinted over the waters of Lake Michigan.

The completely still waters of Lake Michigan. 

Before the realization had even had time to fully form, he'd thrown himself to the side, tucking in and rolling across the rough concrete. He skidded behind an exhaust block, sword whipping out of its scabbard with a soft rasp. The metal clanked softly against his back, sending an echo ringing down through the shaft.  

A loud, sharp noise snapped out, and he instinctively ducked to the side, before realizing it was the sound of someone clapping. 

"Impressive. Not, like, sarcastic 'impressive', but actually impressive."

He sighed; he recognized the voice. "Oh," he said as he stood up from behind the block, "it's you."

The woman in white stood on the opposite side of the roof, arms folded across her chest. Seeing her in better lighting, he realized that the trim that he'd thought was black was actually a bloody crimson, marking the edges of the plated armor she wore as well as the cape draped down her back. She was taller than he was and full-figured, but the mask that covered her face made it hard to guess her age. Probably mid-twenties, if he had to estimate. Oddly-styled red hair fell down to her shoulders: ordinary ginger on one side, and a deep glossy red on the other. He couldn't imagine any way that it could be real; it'd be nearly impossible to conceal in her civilian identity.

He pointed the sword at her warily. "What, exactly, did you think you were going to achieve by sneaking up on me?" he asked, glaring at her. 

She shrugged nonchalantly. "I wanted to see how well you'd react, that's all."

"Really," he said flatly.

"Yep, really. What tipped you off, if I'm allowed to ask?"

He considered not telling her, but decided it couldn't hurt. "The breeze," he said, gesturing out at the lake. "The water was perfectly still, and it hadn't been windy at all before."

"And what if the wind had just picked up?" she asked, sounding amused.

It was his turn to shrug. "Then no harm done. You're lucky I did, though. If you were closer, I'd probably have gored you on instinct."

She laughed softly. "I'm sure you would have tried," she said kindly. 

He bared his teeth, and whipped his left hand forward, the one not holding the sword. There was a soft chink as the shuriken he'd concealed in his palm buried itself in the ground in front of her foot. She jumped back, swearing. 

"I could have put that in your gut," he said in a controlled, measured tone. "Don't condescend at me, lady, or I will make you regret it."

She looked down at the shuriken, then up at him. And then she laughed. His grip on the blade's handle tightened, and he began reaching for another projectile. 

She noticed his reaction, and held up her hands, gesturing submission. "Sorry, sorry. You're right, that was uncalled for." There was still some amusement in her tone, but he slowly lowered his hand. "It's just... the whole ninja thing. Throwing stars? That scarf? And what is that, a shoto?" 

He blinked in surprise. "...yeah. How did you..."

"Internet," she said, waving a hand dismissively. "Seriously though, what's that whole thing about? You're obviously not Asian," she said, obviously referring to his dark skin. 

He gave a small, noncommittal gesture. "I worked with what I had available."

"And what you had available was shurikens and a short sword? You look like you escaped from the Karate Kid reboot."

Despite himself, a small chuckle escaped his throat. She pointed accusingly. "I heard that, Mr. 'Look-at-how-angry-and-moody-I-am'."

He glared at her. She didn't seem fazed. "Come on, let's get down there. We're already late," she said as she strode past him. She stopped at the edge of the roof, and turned back towards him. "Are you coming or not?" she asked. 

He looked over the edge, and at the street below. "I think I'll stick with the stairs."

She shrugged. "Suit yourself," she replied, and stepped backwards off the edge.

He watched as she fell, oddly slow, towards the pavement. When she landed, it looked less like a human body that had just fallen 12 stories and more like a feather that had gently come to a rest. She turned around and saw him looking down, waved, and crossed the street towards the meeting point. He waited a minute, then walked back towards the door to the stairwell.

He descended slowly, checking every corner before he rounded them. Just because she hadn't attacked him on the rooftop didn't mean it wasn't still a trap. When he got to the ground level, he paused in the lobby for a second, gathering his wits, then sprinting out across the road, weaving and juking in case of any ranged attackers. 

There apparently weren't any, or they were biding their time, and he reached the door unmolested. He pressed his back up against the wall next to the doorframe, and slowly pushed it open with his sword. The hinges creaked as it swung open, but there were no explosions or gunshots, so he slipped in through the crack. 

"That's a bit paranoid, isn't it?" 

The inside of the warehouse looked much like the outside had, except with more dust and debris. One of the support columns had fallen, and the section of the roof it had been supporting was crumpled and sagging in a manner that he didn't like the look of. A small amount of light was managing to trickle in through the dirty skylights, and it provided a scant view of the figures standing in the center of the room. 

There were four of them. The woman, a guy in makeshift armor who looked vaguely Indian, a white guy with no sleeves and a balaclava and goggles, and a figure of indeterminate gender in full combat gear. The voice that had spoken had been male and sounded fairly proper and English, so he guessed it was the Indian-looking one.

"There's no such thing as too paranoid," he said to the figure. "There's paranoid enough, and there's dead."

His guess had been wrong: the white guy, Balaclava, opened his mouth and replied. "That doesn't seem like the healthiest of mindsets to be living by."

Flint fixed him with a glare. "I'm a vigilante. They really are all out to get me."

The Indian guy snorted. "Wow. Who invited this clown? What, you think you're a ninja or something?"

"Foresight, please," said the woman in white, holding up a hand in a forestalling gesture. "I invited him, like I did everyone else. As for why, if you'd join us," she said to Flint, "I'll begin."

He cautiously approached the group, until they were standing in a loose circle, a few feet between them. 

The guy snorted at him, but didn't say anything else, just folding his bulky gauntlets over his chest.

"So," she said. "Welcome. In case you hadn't guessed, I invited you here because you're all the vigilantes of this city." We all looked at her silently. "Not the only ones," she amended, raising her hand, "or even the highest profile ones, but the point still stands. You've all managed to stay under the radar, mostly dealing with your own areas, and it took a significant amount of time for me to track you down."

The figure in combat gear spoke up, revealing their voice to be as obscured as the rest of them. "Why don't ya just fuck right off, ya snooty bitch." The words were mushed up and smashed around in a way that almost sounded like an accent. "If we wanted ta hear shit we already knew, we'd be atta school." Now there was a sentiment Flint could get behind. 

The woman raised her hand again; it seemed to be a habit of hers. "There is a point, I promise, and I'm getting to it. In case you hadn't guessed, I'm one of you, or I at least do the same thing, but I've not been so under the radar. Have any if you heard of the Steelmill Phantom?" Flint vaguely recalled hearing something about it on the news a few weeks ago, but he hadn't paid any attention to it, brushing it off as more Tower business. The rest of them either nodded, shook their heads, or shrugged. "Well," she said, spreading her arms, "you're looking at her. I've been giving the so-called 'heroes' a bit of trouble in the area, and apparently they've decided I've warranted a name."

"How much trouble?" asked the gauntlet guy (Foresight, she'd called him) suspiciously. 

Her posture shifted slightly, and although he couldn't see it, it was obvious to Flint that a huge grin covered her face. "I was stopping a mugging when Fog and Thrust showed up and tried to bring me in. I refused. They tried to make me come anyway, and I… nicely convinced them not to."

Flint gave a low whistle. Fog and Thrust belonged to the Guardians, the local Tower's junior hero team. But junior didn't mean weaker, and they were both tough customers: if this Phantom had 'convinced' them both, then she was either very lucky, lying, or really strong (or some combination of the three). But if she had...

He swore out loud, his sword appearing in his hand. "You lying... This whole thing! You just want us to be here when they find you!"

The others looked at her, eyes narrowing and fists clenching as the implications of his words sunk in. "Is that true?" asked Balaclava. "Because if it is, the next few minutes are going to be very unpleasant for you." There were angry murmurs of assent all around, Flint included. He'd worked very hard to make sure he didn’t attract attention to himself, and if this woman thought she was going to mess that up, she had another one coming. 

She took a step back, arms raised up in front of her like a shield. "Whoa whoa whoa. Hold your horses, people. I promise, that wasn't my intent at all.  Though," she said, “you did touch on a point that’s relevant to what I was getting at.”

“Then maybe,” he suggested sarcastically, “you should just fucking say it, rather than dancing around it like the prettiest ballerina at the show.”

“Aww, you think I’m pretty.”

He growled. “I will kill you. Right here, right now.”

She laughed again. “You are way too easy to rile up. But the main gist of what I’m trying to say is this: I want to form a team.”

They all stared at her for a second. “Is that a joke?” Balaclava asked at last.

“Nope,” she replied. “Dead serious.”

“Why?” Flint asked.

“Well, if you’d let me ‘dance’ a little longer, I would’ve gotten to that. Look, it’s pretty simple; ‘United We Stand’ and all that. We’re all working towards the same goal, and if we work together, our ability to do that increases exponentially.”

Foresight scoffed. “So, you want us to do what, exactly? Get matching costumes and get into fights with the heroes?”

“Nothing that complicated. All I’m suggesting is that we assign areas, keep in communication, that sort of thing. If any of us get into trouble, the others come and help out. That way, we can make sure that we’re covering the most areas, and we don’t have to worry about the Tower finding us.”

“I’m pretty sure we’d still hafta,” the armored figure of ambiguous... everything said. “It’s the fuckin’ Tower.” Something in the voice caught Flint's attention. Could it be... no, surely not.

Phantom snorted. “Please. They play up their rep, but they’re not a government agency; they can’t go around spying on people or anything like that. Besides, half of those pansies they call heroes haven’t been in a real fight in their life. The five of us? More than enough to take on anything that gets thrown at us.”

“And if we don’t like the idea of having things thrown at us in the first place?” Balaclava asked. “I don’t know if you’ve forgotten or if you’re simply willfully ignoring it, but the rest of us,” and he enunciated in such a way to make it clear as the not-so-subtle dig that it was, “have managed to be just fine flying under the radar.”

“Maybe,” she admitted. “I’m not expecting an answer right here and now. All I’m asking is that you think it through, and judge for yourself which way’s going to allow you to do more good.”

“Wha’ makes ya think ya can trust us?” Combat Gear asked. “S’not like you actually know any of us. We could jus’ stab ya in the back or something.” 

“Maybe I’m just a trusting person,” Phantom replied easily. “Or maybe I’ve been watching you all for a while now and think I’ve gotten a good measure of you. Pick whichever answer make you more comfortable.”

“Telling us you’ve been spying on us isn’t the best way to get us to trust you,” Flint said suspiciously.

“Man, you’re just like a broken record, aren’t you?” she asked with a smile in her voice. “Do you want a big neon sign that says ‘I Have Issues’ or something? I’ve said my thing. Once you get home, look me up, and you’ll see that I’ve been doing exactly what I said I have. Put aside your own issues for a second and look at this… what’s the word? Um, without bias and that stuff?”

“Objective?” asked Balaclava dryly.

She clicked her fingers. “Yeah, that one. Look at it objectively, and you’ll see what I’m saying makes sense.”

He stared at her, then at the others. “This isn’t a joke, is it? You’re serious. You,” he pointed at her,” are actually serious, and you lot,” he gestured at the others, “are actually considering it.”

“You’re just now getting that?” she asked, sounding surprised.

Balaclava shrugged. “She does have something of a point.”

He threw his arms up in exasperation. “I give up. You’re all stupid, this idea is idiotic, and you’re going to end up dead or in jail because of it. Hell, now you’re probably going to get me dragged down along with you. So thanks a fucking bunch, but I’m done.” He turned away from them and strode towards the door.

“Oh, come on,” Phantom called after him. “You’ve got to admit that knowing who the other vigilantes are is useful. At least give me that.”

He stopped and sighed. “Fine.” He turned and pointed to each of them in turn. “Steelmill Phantom, works in the industrial area. Frequent gunfire in the slums means that’s probably Combat Gear’s stomping ground. “Foresight” sounds preppy as hell, so I’m assuming he’s working near the burbs. Balaclava, no idea. Happy?”

Balaclava spoke up. “Slums, in case you’re interested.”

“I’m really not.” He moved to leave again. “Have fun with your little suicide party.”

“What about you?” Phantom asked innocently. “Least you can do.”

“Yeah,” Combat Gear said, sounding annoyed. “’Specially since ya got all pissed about her watching ya, then turns out, you’ve been doin’ the same.”

“I haven’t been spying on any of you,” he replied, irritated, not turning. “I just did my research, specifically to avoid this scenario.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, not sounding convinced.

“If you really want to know, I’ve been working here. Stay out of my turf, and I’ll stay out of yours.”

“You got a name?” asked Foresight.

He snorted dismissively. “Names are for poseurs and arrogant shits.”

They all stared at him for a second. “Void,” the woman in white said flatly, tapping her chest.

“Flatline,” said Balaclava, sounding amused.

“Ricochet,” and they looked like they were giving him an odd look beneath their combat gear.

“Names are kind of important these days,” Void said. “You might want to reconsider that stance.”

“Whatever,” he said, stepping out the door. “Don’t contact me again.”

He strode down the street, passing in and out of the pools of light cast by the streetlamps. Those idiots didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. Sure, they might get something going in the short term, but he’d met good money that within a year, year and a half at the most, either the Tower would stomp them out, or they’d stumble into something bigger than themselves, and one of the groups of criminals would do the Tower’s job for them. And he’d had warned them, of exactly that. It was a shame, but what it wasn’t was his business. He’d just keep doing what he was doing, saving people.

So why did it bother him so much?

Never 1-IV

Never Lose.

The flare of light only lasted a brief moment. The shockwave of pure force that accompanied it also only lasted a brief moment, but let me tell you, ‘a brief moment’ means two very different things in those two cases. For example, a brief moment of bright white light just caused my to shield my eyes (although it could have been worse if I wasn’t wearing tinted goggles). A brief moment of a shockwave, on the other hand, slammed into me and actually tossed me back a few feet, as well as kicking up a giant cloud of dust. It was completely soundless, though, which was pretty freaky.

I pushed myself up onto an elbow. See, that’s what happens when communication breaks down. You get friendly fire. I was just lucky nothing was broken.

The dust was thick enough that I couldn't see more than a foot in front of me, so it was a surprise when a hand suddenly appeared in my face. I recognized the glove, and grabbed it with my own, allowing them to haul me to my feet.

“A little warning would've been nice,” I whispered quietly, not wanting to give away our position.

“Sorry. Didn't know you were here.” Taller than me, wearing a WW2 pilot's uniform in tan and blue, Freefall’s face and tone were equally reserved. She was the newest ‘member’ of  the Outliers, having only joined less than two months, under circumstances I'm still a little fuzzy on. Despite that, though, she’d apparently impressed Void (our leader), through being quiet, sensible, and perfectly willing to kick colossal amounts of ass. I hadn't really interacted with her too much, but the few meetings we had had had (triple, nice) given me a good impression. This scenario, on the other hand, was chipping away at it slightly.

“What happened to your earpiece?”

“Took a hit. Broke.”

“You took a hit, in your ear?”

She shrugged. “Apparently.”

I considered it for a second. “...okay, fair enough. What actually happened here?”

She pursed her lips, looking pissed. “Tried opening with a drop, but forcefield one saw in time, stopped it. Tide threw them off, but Snake Hair knocked her down. Strongarm took out Stonewall and Ribbon. Hit the shield again, but can't go all out because he's using Tide as a shield.”

I raised an eyebrow. “That wasn't all out.”

She actually smirked, the first emotion that wasn't mild frustration I'd seen from her. “Not even close.”

Well, that was a little scary. I didn't let it show. “Right. Would full power kill all of us?”

It took her a second to reply. “...probably.”

“Half that?”

She shook her head. “Don't be exposed, though.

“Okay, and how long will that take?”

“...four minutes?”

Four minutes, okay. I could do that. “Right. Do that, when I say go.” I set four minutes on my watch, ready to start. “Aim for the edge of the crater, a little in.”

She nodded, not questioning me, which I liked. “You'll get the others out?”

“I'll do one better.” The dust had started to clear, the light but persistent breeze carrying it away. “Okay, go.” Freefall nodded and disappeared, and I started the timer and burst into action.

4:00

I leaped down into the crater again. Strongarm and Ribbon were in the same positions I'd last seen them, but the villain was crouched lower, one hand dug into the ground. That'd be how he avoided getting knocked away by the blast. His eyes widened as he saw me barrelling towards him, and he straightened up and took a swing at me. I could've used my momentum to charge him, but getting into close quarters with a guy that strong was generally the type of thing I tried to avoid. I'm good, but not that good. Instead, I watched the leading of his swing (sloppy stuff) and skidded underneath it, using the slope to my advantage. While I was down there, I grabbed a handful of dirt, and as I sprang up, I drove a knee into his chest and flung the dirt into his unprotected eyes.

He reeled back, muscle shifting around to split evenly amongst his limbs to save his balance. “Ooh, what's wrong, Stretch Armstrong,” I quipped, “not willing to get dirt-y?”

I don't know if his reaction was from the pun or more general, but it was probably justified either way. He roared and stepped forward, swinging both hands together in a hammer-clap towards my head. I swayed back out of range, and as he overbalanced forward, I dived down towards him, into a roll that brought me up almost between his legs. So I did what any sensible person would do.

I hit him hard enough in the balls that he'd be singing soprano for weeks.

He squeaked, and toppled to the side. Once he hit the ground, curling up into a fetal position, I gave him a push with my foot and sent him rolling down the incline. One down, three to go.

3:17

Well, that wasn't strictly true. They were all sheltered behind the shield, and I had to stick to the plan. My focus right then should be getting the others to safety, and figuring out some way of getting Tide out of the forcefield claw she was held in.

I picked up Ribbon’s limp form, hiking her arm over my shoulders. I could see Medusa glaring at me from inside the shield, creepy tendril hair waving about in agitation, but she couldn't do anything from in there.

“Earth to Nat,” I said softly as I lugged her towards the edge of the crater. (Nat is her real name). “This is ground control.”

“Shauna?” she murmured, slightly slurred. That's Tide: she and Ribbon have a thing.

“No, it's Skew. Sorry.” We'd reached the edge, and I checked my watch quickly.

2:49

“Oh,” she said. “We win?”

“Working on it,” I replied, looking up at the sky. I thought I could see the slightest twinkle. “But I'm gonna need to just put you down- woah!”

It was only luck that allowed me to dodge. A yellowish-green bolt of energy streaked out of nowhere, slamming into the dirt next to my foot. All the ground it touched immediately turned into stone. I whipped my head around to see both Medusa and the forcefield guy looking at me, the former with her hand outstretched and steaming slightly. He must've opened a small hole in the shield for her to use. “Sorry, Nat,” I said as I lowered her to the ground, “I gotta handle this. Try and shield yourself, yeah?”

I only got an incoherent grunt in response.

2:16

Okay, now Tide. This was going to be trickier. I didn't have any tricks that let me break forcefields, after all. Unless…

I examined the idea, stepping to the right to avoid another blast. Yeah, it should work. It'd probably leave me dangerously low on power for the plan, but I'd manage.

I began running down  the slope again, towards the forcefield. Medusa snarled noiselessly, and unleashed another few bolts, but they didn't move that fast, and I easily dodged them. The half dome of the shield was about a meter in from the edge of the centre of the donut; if I had to guess, I'd say it had been at the edge originally, but he'd moved it back in to conserve strength. I came over the lip at a dead sprint, heading straight for the shield. As I did, I grabbed another handful of dirt. Sure enough, Medusa summoned a petrification bolt again and let it fly at me, passing through a hole that opened in the shield just long enough for it to pass through. I flung the clump ahead of me, straight into the bolt. Instantly, it was transformed into a stone about the size of my fist, which I hurled forward at the shield.

It broke apart on impact, but it wasn’t meant to do anything other than startle and distract them until I reached the barrier. They all flinched back from it, and that gave me the opportunity I needed. Not slowing in the slightest, I hit the forcefield and ran up the side. It was slightly soft and springy beneath my feet, but still solid. Its creator stared at me, open-mouthed for a second, and then it began shifting underneath me, trying to grab at my feet. It was pretty slow, though, so it couldn't get a grip, and I easily reached the claw holding Tide.

Without missing a step, I reached down into my well of power, summoning up a rush of cold energy. Unlike normal, I didn't direct or focus it in any way, just swung it like a hammer, straight at the forcefield.

Powers interact in a consistent manner. Like vinegar and baking soda: fine on their own, but combine them, and things got violent.

The section of the shield shattered into fragments, almost invisible in the night lighting. I felt my power break too, but seeing as it was raw and unfocused anyway, it didn't really make a difference. Tide's limp form fell from the air, and I caught it and continued running. I was lucky it was her: she didn't weigh 100 pounds soaking wet.

I bounded down the other side and off the shield, dodging another flurry of blasts from Medusa, and running up to the edge of the crater.

0:47

I sprinted round back to my original position and dumped Tide with Ribbon, who had set up her remaining fabric in a shield. “Stay down,” I told her, and she nodded.
0:30

I ran back down into the crater, finding the spot I’d agreed on with Freefall. If the Cabalists were bemused by my running around, they didn’t show it. Medusa, like the one-note, she is, tried blasting me again, but the forcefield generator stopped her. He pointed upwards, they engaged in what looked like fierce debate, and then the shield shrank until it was barely covering them. All the while I just stood there, arms by my sides.

0:10

They thought they’d figured it out. They were wrong.

0:05

I looked up to see a bright white comet streaking down out of the sky towards me. I gathered almost everything I had left in my well, and, just before she hit, I used it to turn her sideways.

Straight towards the shield.

Freefall’s power, like a lot of paranormals, was actually a few lesser abilities that synchronized together into a ‘theme’, for the lack of a better word. Her main power allowed her to store up energy while airborne and release it upon impact. The longer she was in the air, the more energy she built up. She had a secondary ability that allowed her to survive a fall from any height, or maybe that was the first ability sending all her momentum outwards in the blast, but it was her third power that really made her formidable: namely, the ability to teleport straight up. It would’ve been an annoying limitation (and you can’t imagine how useful it’d be to have a proper teleporter) but it synced up well with her other power.

The forcefield generator had obviously countered this by strengthening his shield on top, the only angle she could approach from. Add me and my power into the mix, though, and…

Well, ever seen an egg get hit by a bullet? Take that, and replace the bullet with an artillery shell.

I was thrown back into the inclined ground as a shockwave of pure force erupted from the point of contact. I tumbled and rolled, deprived of any avoidance my power could have provided, and blinded by the cloud of dust thrown up by the wave. I coughed, and a sharp pain shot through my chest. Aw hell. That was not good. Wheezing, I pushed myself up onto one knee. I opened up a channel to the whole team on my earpiece. “All-,” I broke off as I choked on some dust in my throat. “Everyone, report in,” I finally managed to grate out.

“This is Li- uh, Ricochet. I got eyes on the scene, jus’. You okay, Flint? Ya don’t sound great.”

“Flatline, reporting in lieu of Vortex. We’re just a few streets back, and it shouldn’t take us more than a few minutes.”

“…Foresight, still standing guard over a bunch of unconscious bodies.”

Freefall appeared out of the dust again, looking significantly more worn than before. I nodded to her, and she nodded back. “Can you manage one more?” I asked her quietly. She grimaced, but nodded. “Short one, just to clear the dust.” In a blink, she was gone.

I switched back to the coms. “Acknowledged, all. Ricochet, Freefall’s going to clear the dust. I want a takedown shot on the forcefield generator.”

“Gotcha.”

“Good. Vortex, Flatline, get in here as quick as you can. Freefall and I’ll keep ‘em occupied till then. Let’s en-” There was a thump, and another shockwave slammed into me, but this one was only strong enough to make me take a few steps back.

As the dust cloud rolled past me, I got eyes on the center just in time to see Pincer convulse and collapse to the ground as a crack sounded out in the distance. Medusa and the eye guy were on their backs and struggling to rise. Medusa due to getting hit by two shockwaves in a row, and the other one because Freefall had just booted him in the face. With a spray of blood from his nose, he went flying back to the ground, landing next to a duffel bag I hadn’t noticed before.

Medusa had struggled up onto one leg, facing Freefall and seemed to be preparing to send a bolt out at her. I took a perverse pleasure in hooking her leg out from under her and sending her face into the dirt. I rested one of my feet on her head and pushed down, grinding her face into the dust.

“Okay, lady, there are two ways the remainder of this ass-kicking can go down. Option one is that you continue to lay in the dirt until our friends show up, and we all go on our way with a minimum of broken teeth. Option two is-” I felt something yank on my leg, pulling me down and sending me crashing to the ground just past her. I tried to hide the involuntary wince as my chest spiked with pain, and looked down to see her hair wrapped around my leg, and, just beyond that, her face looking up at me, with malice oozing from every pore. She bared her teeth, unnaturally sharp and pointy, and began pulling my foot towards her mouth.

So I used the foot she wasn’t holding to kick her in the mouth.

Point of information: I like very heavy boots. She reeled back, screaming through the hand she held to her mouth. I jumped up onto my feet (and dear God did it hurt), and grinned through the pain. “You have selected option two: a maximum of broken teeth, and you biting the dust until our friends arrive. Would you like to confirm your choice?”

She screeched and charged me, sending a blast forward in front of her as she sprang off the ground. I ducked under the bolt and waited until she was close, then feinted to one side. She followed the fake, hair whipping forward, razor-tipped strands ready to cut me to pieces. They slashed through the space I had been standing a second ago as I bounded forward, grabbed a handful of her hair, and yanked down as I went past her. Her head hit the ground with a dull thunk, and I jumped back away, cognizant of her hair this time.

“You have selected Option Two. Thank you, and enjoy your beating.” I strolled over and picked up the duffel bag, tossing it to Freefall. “Could be something cool. Ricochet, nearest hero team?”

“Uhh, the Guardians, I think?”

“Estimated ETA?”

“Precisely fuck-if-I-know minutes.”

“Thanks, Ricochet, that’s very helpful. Alright, we’ll leave them for the ‘heroes’ to come and book. Freefall, go find Stonewall. Get him, Tide and Ribbon to the others when they show up. I’m gonna have a little chat with our friend here.”

I crouched down in front of Medusa’s limp body. Her eyes burned with hate and she still breathed, but she didn’t seem to have the energy left to mouth. “When you get out,” I said quietly, “you tell your boss. Whatever she’s got planned, I’m gonna stop it. And tell everyone else this. We’re here to do what they,” I pointed up at the Tower in the distance, “can’t. We’re the Outliers, and we’re gonna kick this sorry-ass city into shape.”


Never 1-III

Focused On The Front.

Ramsay Park wasn't a 'take your kids for a play' kind of place, unless you’re a creepy survivalist nutjob. When the city had been built, someone had evidently thought it'd be good to have a nice little bit of greenery bridging the residential area and the financial one, something to split up the monotony of concrete and metal while also serving as a remnant of the national park that had used to be here. Well, that was the plan.

Presumably, though, somewhere along the way that plan had been eaten by a dog, or replaced with a Greenpeace pamphlet about the Amazon, because Ramsay Park gave new meaning to the term urban jungle. A thick wedge of evergreen foliage surrounded by a border of manicured lawn, both coated in frost, it looked more like a video game arena than a real place. You couldn’t see more than a few feet into the thick foliage if you were standing right on the edge, and every middle school in the city was filled with rumors about people being killed in there. People had been killed in there, though: it’s a giant freaking forest in the middle (well, sort of off to the side) of a city. It might as well have a sign saying ‘commit your murders here’ (and it did for a little while, until some punks on community service removed all of Lis’s graffiti).

Whoever planned it was right; it really did break up the districts and provide a pleasant sight. I doubt they expected anyone to be looking at it while jumping off an apartment block, though.

The wind yanked away my hood as I leaped out, pulling my hair and cape out behind me. Below, the lights of the passing cars provided a rushing, roaring backdrop to my trick, like a river of fireflies. I might have been screaming, I'm not sure. The roar of engines drowned it out anyway.

I reached the peak of my arc within a few seconds of leaving the ground, and quickly began plummeting. I hadn't even crossed a quarter of the distance to the other side. I let myself fall for a few moments: longer than I'd normally have left it, but normally I was trying to cross between two buildings of equal height. The landing point being lower allowed me some freedom. Then, when I judged I'd picked up enough speed, I dug deep and tapped into that cold well again. Only this time, I used it on myself.

Let's map this out step-by-step, make it a bit easier. So at that moment, I was travelling forward and downward, right? About 30% of my momentum was the former, the other 70% the latter. You'll want to picture this in 2D, it's simpler. So my power changes that momentum, but only ninety degrees. In this case, I'm making that ninety degrees upward. So what was 70% downwards is now 70% forwards, and the 30% forwards was 30% upwards.

Essentially, I bounced. Don't know why I didn't just say that, it's much simpler.

It didn't jar like I still expected it to, even after using it many times over. No, it was instantaneous, and smooth as silk. One moment I was moving one way, the next, another. Simple as that.

I arced upwards again, letting out a whoop of joy. It's not a sensation I get to enjoy too much, but I love that sense of freedom that comes with what I call not-quite flight. There's nothing quite like it, barring, presumably, actual flight. I'd never get to experience that under my own power, though, so I had to settle for this.

I peaked again, just before halfway across, and a little lower. I fell again, for longer this time, and repeated the bounce. As I soared forward again, I internally checked my power level. The well was still a little over half-full, and the last bounce I needed to do plus the landing would probably bring it to just below that. Nothing I could do about that, unfortunately. My power refilled at a consistent rate; I'd only taken it to empty once, and on top of being intensely unpleasant, it had taken three days to get it back to full. I wasn't going to get any noticeable amount back between this and the upcoming fight. I'd have to make do with what I had. My power didn't have any straight offensive options, so that meant to be effective I'd probably have to go for one or two big things rather than the plentiful but small equalizers and trip-ups I normally used. Fortunately, I had some ideas about that already.

But right now, I had to stick the landing. The last bounce which brought me down to half like I thought it would, had sent me hurtling towards the rooftop. The good: 'towards the rooftop’. The bad: 'hurtling’. If I wanted to be able to use my knees within the next six months, I'd have to slow down significantly. Now, if I was a proper kinetic energy manipulator, I wouldn't even have to think about it, but noooo, I had to get a shitty-ass second-gen power.

I came in at about 45 degrees, fast enough that I couldn't just roll through it. I bounced again, heading towards the edge of the roof, then again while I was still arcing upwards, so that I was now heading upwards and backwards. After the peak, I bounced immediately, so only a tiny amount of momentum got transferred, and repeated that all the way down until I was about three meters off the roof, and then just let myself drop.

I took a deep breath, and let it out, then pumped my fist in the air silently. Fucking nailed it.

“God, that looked fuckin’ weird,” Ricochet said over the coms.

“Cool, though, right?” I didn't waste any time standing around, immediately taking off towards the fire stairs.

“Ehhhh.” I could practically picture the gesture she was making, waggling her hand to either side, palm down. “I've seen better.”

“You’re just trying to piss me off,” I said as I barreled through the door and down the stairs, narrowly dodging two young men coming up the other way carrying a picnic blanket. “Sorry!” I called back to them as I slung around the railing. “But that roof's kind of shitty anyway! You have a whole park, like, right there!” I don't think they heard that last part, I was already at the bottom of the stairs. But hey, it's the thought that counts, right?

“Okay, what's happening now?” I asked Ricochet as I burst out onto the street, hooking a hard right. I could see the trees over the buildings at the end of the street, but the noise from the freeway behind me was loud enough that I couldn't hear any sounds of battle.

“Uh, les'see here. Stonewall out, dunno how. They're ignoring him though, so that's good. The forcefield guy’s… man, that's fuckin’ weird. He's got Tide in like a claw or some shit, made out of the forcefield. Looks like a crab claw, actually. Strongarm’s kinda whaling on Ribbon-” she sucked in a breath through her teeth. “Ooh. Now he's just slammin’ her back and forth. It's nasty.”

I winced. Ribbon's powers made her tough, but it was armor, not natural strength, and that sounded like it could seriously fuck her up. I doubled down on my pace as I neared the end of the road. “What about Freefall?”

“Hol’ on,” she said, sounding like she was moving about. “Yeah, got 'er. She's comin’ in, mebbe… thirty secs?”

There wasn't a proper alleyway between the buildings, but there was enough space that I could pass through, albeit with my shoulders brushing the edges. Who designs like that, anyway? Have a proper alley or squeeze them together; doesn't matter which, just commit, you know? “Is she answering her com?”

“Think it's gone; she hasn't been.”

“Great. That makes it so much easier.” With that, I burst out onto the green lawn of Ramsay Park.

The first thing that I noticed was that there was a goddamn crater. Thirty feet across, maybe, and half that deep at the lowest point? It wasn't a inverted dome, though: it was shaped like a donut, with a plateau in the centre. Standing on it, protected by a shimmering brown forcefield, were three of the four… Cabalites? Cabalists? Whatever.

It was Medusa, the forcefield guy, who wore brown the same color as the forcefield, and the eye guy, who was decked out in black and white robes with a fancy white eye on the front.

The fourth… I'm just going to go with Cabalist, Strongarm, was down in the crater, beating the tar out of a figure wrapped like a mummy in all sorts of materials. That's Ribbon: her power lets her strengthen and control fabrics, which was probably the only thing keeping her alive. Strongarm had one of the nastier powers I'd seen. He had a bunch of extra, dense muscle, which he can move around to different limbs to make them stronger or tougher, and loose flexible skin to make that possible. Right now, it looked like most of that mass was concentrated in his right arm, which he was slamming repeatedly down onto Ribbon.

I turned my gaze back to Medusa and the two new ones as I approached the Crater's edge. So. She'd been recruiting. That didn't bode well. Ado didn't do things without a reason, and she was kind of paranoid and crazy. Letting new people join meant that the leader of the Cabal was preparing for something. Or maybe she'd already prepared: from what I'd overheard, the reason the other Outliers had planned this raid is that the Cabal would be coming back from some kind of job and off their guard. Evidently, that hadn't worked.

The forcefield shifted, drawing my eyes upwards, and I saw Tide’s blue-armored form hanging in the air above it. If I squinted, I could see the shimmering of the forcefield holding her up. Hmm. So it was malleable. Interesting. I glanced down at the main dome of the shield again, and confirmed my suspicions. Yep, it was definitely thicker on top, and I had an inkling of why. And if I was right-

A glowing streak plummeted out of the sky, slamming into the top of the shield, and everything went white.

Never 1-II

Movin’ To The Top.

I froze. The memory of screaming, raw and hoarse, filled my head, driving out any other thoughts. I couldn't have moved in that moment any more than I could have suddenly sprouted wings.

There was a snap-hiss, barely audible over the roaring flames, and suddenly the inferno disappeared. The woman stood there still, looking slightly bemused, and then slowly pitched over. She hit the ground with a heavy thud, and lay there limply, her breathing the only movement.

And just like that, it was over. I leaned forward, resting my hands on my knees, and catching my breath. My heart was pounding in my chest, my lungs heaving and panting, sweat rolling down my chest, and not just from the heat. That was… damn it. That could've been really bad. It had been almost two years now, and still…

I stood back up, calmer. I always thought I had it down, and then it'd come up again when I was least expecting it.

My phone buzzed in my pocket, and I sighed, pulling it out and answering the private number.

“Yer welcome,” said the voice on the other end immediately.

“Hello, Lis. How are you? Good? Well, that’s good. Me? Oh I'm just swell.”

“Oh, I'm sorry, did I or did I not just save yer life?”

“...thank you, Lis.”

“See? Was tha’ so hard?”

Lisette DuPont is, sadly, my best friend. Acerbic, rude, generally unpleasant, and with an accent that sounded like she'd thrown every other accent in the world into a turbocharged blender, she’s… definitely unique. She does have her good qualities, but you kinda have to dig for them. With a JCB. And industrial quantities of explosive. And possibly an exorcist.

Like me, she’s a super, and like me, she’s a vigilante. We’re part of a… well, we’ll get to that in a second. What’s important is that she had no reason to be anywhere near me, and yet she’d taken out the flame-thrower.

“Lis, what are you doing around here? I thought you were helping the others with… that thing?”

“I am,” she replied cheerily. “S’just around here, and thought I’d jus’ peek in on ya. Good thing I did, huh?”

“Wait, they’re around here?! Shit, shit.” I turned and began pacing. “How close?”

She laughed - well, snorted. “Jeez, relax. I’m like five blocks from ya, and they’re like five blocks from me. Plenty o’ space, ya giant pussy.” Lis’s power lends itself to an overwatch role pretty well, so that’s what she usually does for us. She likes it because she can nest up with way too much junk food.

I breathed out a sigh of relief. “Oh, good.”

“Wait. Ya mean you weren’t intentionally hoverin’ around in case somethin’ went wrong?”

“What?” I asked, confused. “No, of course not. Why would I do that? This is just my normal patrol route.”

“Pfft. Patrol route.”

“Literally nothing about that was funny.”

“It is when I can see yer face.”

“What?!” I spun around futilely. I was standing in an empty back road, industrial buildings on one side and the abandoned apartment buildings that characterized the neighbourhood on the other. The high rises, including the Tower, glittered in the sky above the former, and the other side of Lake Michigan above the latter. There were myriad buildings in between on both sides, though, so she could’ve been anywhere. “Lis, don’t fuck around with me.”

“Hmm…” she pretended to consider it. “Nah, I’m gonna keep doin’ it. I think I earned it, considering I saved your life.”

I sighed. “Lis, I’ve literally punched out a guy who had a knife to your throat. I think we’re even.”

“What about that time when the guy who made those spheres-”

“Balanced out by the one with giant sword.”

“The creepy clown?”

“Plant-fucker, remember?”

“Uh… the boyband?”

“Sword one again.”

“Fuck! The…” she clicked her fingers. “The goddamn Cabal! Hah!”

“The goddamn Cabal, twice,” I repeated back drily. “Hah.

“Gawd fuckin’ dammit! You piece of shit!”

“Now, now,” I admonished. “That’s no way to talk to the person who’s saved your life.”

“Fuck off,” she laughed. Then, suddenly serious, “You okay, though?”

I ran a hand through my dreads, forgetting I’d held them back with a scrunchie, and felt them come loose. “Yeah,” I replied, irritated as I fixed my hair, “I’m okay. It just… it doesn’t get easier, you know? It’s not scarring over.”

“Yeah, I know.” Lis has seen some shit. Don’t get any ideas, though; her repellant personality isn’t hiding a soft, sensitive core. That’s just how she is. She doesn’t have layers; she’s just one solid block of... Lis. Still, she’s still a human being, and she can empathize. “So… I guess I saved you from an emotional threat as well as a physical one, which means we’re fuckin’ even, bitch!” Sometimes. She can empathize sometimes.

“I’m not even gonna try,” I muttered. “So… how’s it going?”

“Ha!” she crowd. “I knew it. So much for ‘this is a stupid idea an’ if you all die it ain’t my fault’.”

“Just… just tell me, please.” Belatedly, I realized I hadn’t gotten my cape back. I strolled over to where it lay and picked it, shaking it out, and stomping on the big man’s fingers as he tried to swipe at my leg. The fabric was unharmed, if a little stained, and I swept around my shoulder and popped the buttons back into place.

“Oh, fine, fine,” she drawled. “Not that you care, of course.”

“Lis,” I growled.

“Don’ get yer panties in a twist, jeez. It’s going fine. Well, this group is, anyway.”

“Which one? Sanjay’s or Jess’?”

“Apartment, Sanjay.” I made a face, and she did the obligatory vomiting noise. “Hold on, I’ll check on the others-” her voice cut off. When it came back, she was serious. “Flint, put in your earpiece.”

“Wha-?”

Now.”

Serious Lis meant that this was serious. I pulled my earpiece out of one of my belt pouches and slipped it into my ear. Immediately, a voice popped in, perfectly clear. “Skew, you piece of shit.”

That’s me - the name, not the voice. It’s my ‘superhero’ nom-de-plume, even if I don’t technically qualify for the title. And yes, I know it’s bad. If you can think of something better, I’d be glad to hear it.

The voice belonged to Sanjay Singh, a.k.a. Foresight a.k.a. a ginormous toolbag. If I didn’t already have one, he would be my nemesis (more in a sitcom way than a real way, though). He's another member of my… not team, exactly. We're a loose coalition of vigilantes and mercenaries called the Outliers (not my idea). If I was in charge, Foresight would never have gotten in, on account of him being intensely unpleasant. I'm not, though, so he's in. The Outliers were currently engaged in a raid against a group of superpowered criminals called the Cabal (formerly 'of the Enlightened Savior’, now just the Cabal). I'd argued firmly against it, partially because it was dangerous, and partly for… personal reasons. I'd been overruled, though, and so I'd chosen to remove myself from the plan. I wasn't lying to Lis: I really hadn’t planned to be nearby.

“Hello to you too, Foresight,” I replied dryly. We used codenames only on the earpieces. “Would you like to specify why I'm a piece of shit?”

He growled. “Shut the fuck up. The second team, Freefall's team, they're getting trashed. You know, the team you were supposed to be leading? You're closer than us. Get your piece of shit ass over there before your fucking cowardice gets them all killed.” (Freefall is the Jess that Lis mentioned earlier).

I pursed my lips, then began running. I didn't like Foresight, actually I despised him, but this wasn't about him. It was about the rest of the Outliers. “I’m on my way,” I said curtly, then switched to a private channel with Lis. “Ricochet (that's her 'callsign’), you read me?”

“Like an open picture book,” she replied.

“Good. I need directions. Also, why can't you help?”

She actually sounded pissed off. “They got a forcefield guy. Dunno from where. He’s blockin’ me while the others whale on our guys. They're on the edge of Ramsay Park closest to you- ah.”

Ramsay Park. Right. I hooked a left, heading down another deserted street in the general direction I knew the park to be in. “Ah what?”

“There's a freeway in between you and them.”

I let loose a stream of vitriolic swearing. Then, an idea hit me. “Are there any abandoned buildings by the freeway?”

There was a pause. “Yeah, there's one. Skew, please tell me you're gonna do what I think you're gonna do.”

I grinned. “I aim to please.”

She cackled. “Fuckin’ beautiful. Oh, hang a left.”

“You know it.” I followed her direction, turning into a dark alleyway littered with trash. At the other end, I could see the flickering lights of the freeway. “Okay, brief me. Who else is there?”

“On our side, Freefall, Tide & Ribbon and Stonewall. On their’s, the forcefield guy, one with an eye symbol that doesn't seem to be doing anything, Medusa and Strongarm.” Those last two I knew. Medusa had a petrification blast and creepy prehensile hair, and Strongarm had a particularly grotesque form of superstrength. We’d met before, and I remembered it less than fondly. “So… she's not…”

“Nah, she was with the other group. They took her out.” I released the breath I didn't realize I'd been holding. Good, that was one less complication.

I exited the alley, crossing a smaller road. A car horn blared to my left, but the lights were faint enough that I could tell I didn't need to worry about it. There were buildings on the other side, all around six stories, and then beyond them, the freeway. “Which block?!” I barked at Ricochet.

“Three to the right.” I found the one she was talking about, and burst through the entrance, which had no door. There were a set of fire stairs at the back of the lobby, and I took them two at a time. “There's an air-conditioning block right next to the edge. Yer gonna wanna go about… 20 degrees to the right from it. There's a two-story on the other side, nice flat roof. Should be about right.”

“Got it,” I replied, panting, as I burst out onto the roof. Over the edge, I could see the freeway, a six-laner, buzzing with cars and trucks. On the other side was a few rows of buildings, and then Ramsay Park. I quickly spotted the air-conditioning unit Ricochet had pointed out, and the building to aim for. Taking deep breaths, I retreated to the opposite end of the roof, mentally lining up the angles.

“Ricochet?” I asked into the comm.

“If yer gonna ask for luck, ya know I don't do that.”

“Nope, I don't need luck.” I bared my teeth in a grin to no-one. “I just want to make sure you're filming this.”

And with that, I sprinted towards the edge, hit it at full speed, and leaped out into the open air.