Calling 5-III

Watch You From A Distance

The wind whistled down the alleyway, playing a disharmonious melody off the weathered bricks. The rumbling of cars and the faint honks of their horns could be heard in the distance, and the low murmur of people echoed down from the square. I found the sounds calming, actually, a form of reassurance that all around me, people were living their lives. If I had to live in the countryside, I’d probably go a little nutty.

Heh. Because running around in combat gear and a half-cape and punching criminals in the face isn’t nutty at all.

The lights of a passing car briefly reflected off the thin layer of frost on the walls, illuminating us for a second before fading away again.

In the faint half-light, I studied Edith’s face again, and re-evaluated. It seemed that at least some of the harshness I’d noted before wasn’t inherent, and as she settled into a blank, neutral mask, she began to look a little more like herself.

Another car passed.

I hadn’t realized until now, but she’d actually changed the skunk stripe. It used to be a slightly dirty blond, but now it was a bit more literally named and pure white.

This time, the light actually lasted a couple of seconds, probably from a slower-moving vehicle.

“Umm,” I said at last, “so are you going to kill me, or…?

“Really, Flint? Over a year, and that’s how we’re starting off?” And then she grinned, and suddenly it was like nothing had ever happened between us.

“It’s only been a bit over a day, actually.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot about that.”

“You forgot being shot in the head with a stun round?” I asked incredulously.

“You kidding? Remember that time I forgot where my house was?”

I laughed. “Would you believe I completely forgot about that?”

“You did not.”

“No, seriously, completely just flew out of my mind.” I made a little whooshing noise, and she laughed. “God, that was great. Middle of the night, fast asleep, and then my phone goes off, “Flint, where do I live?””

“All I can say is that is made sense at the time.”

“As opposed to say, calling your… oh.” I winced.

“Yeah,” she said with a tight grimace.

“So I’m guessing…”

“Yeah, no, nothing.” She clenched her fists. “Still nothing.”

“Edith,” I said gently, “It’s been two years. At this point, do you really think you’re going to make any difference?”

And crack goes the eggshell-covered thin ice.

Her eyes narrowed. “You just want me to give up? What if she’s still out there, Flint? What if I’m just a month away? What if I’m just a week away?”

“Don’t try that with me, Edith. It’s a sunk-costs fallacy and you know it. How long has it been since you can say you’ve made honest progress towards finding her?”

“Shut. Up. I’m close, I’m really close, and I’m going to find her soon. If I just give it to them…” She trailed off, trembling.

“E, you’ve killed people. Lots of people. I’ve seen the corpses.”

“They were criminals, and they were in my way.”

I laughed, scornful and soft. “They were criminals? Says the girl who leads a superpowered cult, after killing its previous leader who happened to be her own mother?!”

She stiffened, and streams of salt began trickling out from between her fingers. Crap crap crap crap crap.  

“Sorry,” I said quietly. “That was not cool of me, Edith, and I’m sorry.”

“You should be,” she snarled at me. But the flow coming from her hands slowed, and then stopped. She took a deep breath, and her posture relaxed slightly. “…but that probably wasn’t the best reaction in this current situation.”

“Yeah,” I said, releasing the breath I’d been unconsciously holding. “Let’s… let’s not talk about that right now.”

“Please.”

“So, uh… how’d you find me?”

She shrugged noncommittally. “I know a guy.”

“Riiiii-, I stretched the word out sarcastically, then realized I was doing it and tried to pull it back to something more neutral, “-iiight.” Judging by her glare, I guessed it didn’t work. Shocker.

I coughed awkwardly. “So this’d be the guy with all the tacky eye symbols then?”

“Yeah.” 

I waited for her to elaborate, but she stayed silent. “So what’s he do?”

“You could say he’s… good at understanding other’s points of view.”

Cryptic, but if I’d interpreted it right… shit, that was cool. And creepy. Really, really creepy. “How well would he understand my… point of view, right now?” I asked tentatively.

“Not at all.”

“Well, that’s something,” I muttered. “Okay, now that we’ve established the incredibly creepy how, what’s the presumably troubling why?”

She rolled her eyes, and blew a strand of loose hair, of which there was a lot, out of her eye. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“Would I be asking if it was?”

“Yup.”

“Yeah, probably,” I admitted. “I’m guessing it’s something to do with…”

“You’re guessing right.”

“Well, now that I’ve got a streak going, I’m guessing that you want it back.”

“Ladies and gentleman, I present to you A+ plus student Flint Perez.”

I could deal with sarcasm, sarcasm was good. It was more reminiscent of the old Edith.

“I try,” I said, feigning both modesty and sincerity.

“Not very hard, you didn’t,” she said, a small smirk on her face.

“Hey, I graduated, didn’t I?”

“Barely,” she corrected. “You barely graduated.”

I waved a hand dismissively. “Semantics. What matters is that nobody knows I cheated.”

I saw a smile flicker across her face, but it was quickly replaced by a stony mask. “We’re getting off topic. You’re going to give… what you took back, and we’re both going to be better off for it.”

That last bit caught my attention. “So it’s going to bring less-than-friendly attention to us if we keep it?”

“Yes.”

“For the obvious reason, or the other one?”

“The other one.”

“Right. And your group will be able to handle this attention when we can’t”

“We won’t be keeping it, Flint.” There was a dangerous spark in her eye. “This could be it. If I just… this could be it.”

I sighed. “E, no. I can’t, and also won’t. You are, frankly, way too dangerous already.”

“Flint…” There was something dangerous in her tone.

“Plus, giving it back would be an incredible waste considering what we had to go through to get it in the first place.”

“What you had to go through?!”

“Yeah! I stubbed my toe kicking that Gorgon chick in the face, and it’s still sore.” She remained stone-faced. “Fine, whatever. Tide and Stonewall got the shit kicked out of them, and they’re better off than Ribbon-”

“The fat Asian one with the shitty fabric powers?” she interrupted.

I huffed out a blast of air. “Okay, yeah, no, thanks for that?”

“Thanks?”

“Yeah, for reminding me why I’ve been avoiding interacting with you for a year. It’s shit like this, and the shit you were pulling back in the bar.”

She huffed, irritated. “I have to maintain an image, considering my… employees.”

“Yeah, but it’s an image of a giant psychotic bitch, and I’m damn uncertain about the image part.”

She glared at me.

“Glare all you like, but it’s true. You’ve changed, Edith, and not in any way I’d call good.”

She hesitated, and for a second I thought maybe I was getting through, but then her glare returned, stronger than before. “You’re getting distracted, changing the subject. You’re going to return what you took.”

“Or what?”

“Or the Cabal will find your little group of pathetic vigilantes and kill every single one of them.”

“You’re not doing yourself any favours on the 'I’m not a psycho' bit,” I muttered. “But good luck with that, if you think you’re just going to a.) find us, b.) waltz in there and kill us all, and c.) find 'what we took'.” I made finger quotes and intentionally overdramatised my tone with the last one, a rather unsubtle mockery.

“Maybe,” she said slowly, “maybe not. But I think I have a better solution.”

“Which is?” I asked warily.

She smirked, but her chocolate eyes had gone dead again. She raised her hand and pointed it at me, the fingers fuzzy at the edges as salt trickled down to the ground. “You return the bag and the datapad, or I kill you where you stand.”

Lis was going to be insufferable.


Calling 5-II

She Was Once Mine

In a flash, the duffel that Lis had left at her feet was on her lap, her hands disappearing inside its depths. I, on the other hand, quickly and carefully did absolutely nothing. I enjoyed having skin on my face, and I didn't trust my reflexes when the threat was only about three feet away.

"Ah, Lis," Edith said, "how nice to see you again." Her voice was calm and steady, but the little twitches in her hands and fingers told the real story. She'd never had great self-control, and I somehow doubted the last year and a half had helped. They definitely hadn't done good things for her constitution. When I'd known her, the old her, there had always been a softness to round out her undoubtedly sharp features. Now, it had been worn away, leaving nothing but edges and cold, predatory eyes.

"Unless ya want a hole in your face," Lis spat back at her, "I suggest ya leave."

Edith smirked, an unpleasant twisting of her beautiful face. "You haven't changed, have you? You won't fire in here, not with all these poor, innocent people. You won't risk it."

"You'd be surprised," Lis snarled.

"Oh, please, you haven't got that much better."

"You'd be surprised." And her hand didn't move an inch.

It was gone in a blink, but for a second I saw caution wash over Edith's face, and maybe a little fear. Then it was gone, and the mask returned.

She waved a hand, as if dismissing her. "I'll let you have your delusions."

We were starting to get a few odd looks from around the room. Nothing major, but it obviously looked like the situation had all the beginnings of something nasty. From down the bar, Daniel raised an eyebrow at me, questioning. I shook my head slightly, and after a second, he nodded in return. I didn't want anyone else involved in this.

"Look," I said, cutting in, "as fun as this little tit-for-tat is, how about you get to the point or leave?"

She laughed, and it was a little stab of pain in my gut hearing it. “Flint, I know you failed a lot of subjects, but I know you’re not that stupid.”

"Humor me."

You know what, this is getting pretty worn out, so let's just assume that any time I describe Edith doing something it's done in a vaguely unpleasant manner. She smirked. "You haven't changed much either."

I met her eyes, with an unflinching stare. "You have no idea how much I'd like to be able to say the same."

She stared back, and as much as the dead emptiness made me want to cringe away, I managed to hold steady. After a few tense moments, she looked away. “There’s a lot of things we’d all like,” she said softly.

“Like, mebbe, the reason you’re here. Pretty sure I’d like to know that,” Lis said sourly. “Or would ya two like to have more time for your weird nostalgia thing.”

Edith spun on her. “If I wanted you to speak, you fat piece of shit, I’d beat it out you.”

I winced. 

Very slowly, very calmly, Lis stood up out of her chair. One hand held up the straps to the bag, and the other stayed inside, holding firm onto the grip of her sniper. It would’ve looked silly if not for that last part, and to the rest of the bar, who didn’t have that information, it probably did it, because the number of stares we were getting had increased exponentially.

I doubt Edith would be fazed much, but I really wasn’t keen on the idea of started a superpowered brawl/gunfight inside a public space. Plus, there was the only ever-so-slightly humiliating fact that I doubted that Lis and I would win. In a large open space, maybe, but the only way Lis had gotten her the last time was with a surprise attack before she could react, and that wasn’t a luxury we were going to get here, in this enclosed space. “Alright, alright,” I said, standing up and holding up my hands, “how about we all just sit down and-”

Without looking away from Lis, she raised her hand and pointed it at me, fingers outstretched and slightly curled. It actually looked a little like someone casting a spell, except this would be less 1d4+1 and more ‘oh sweet Jesus my face’.

I made the wise decision to freeze.

“Enough of the games,” she snarled. “You are going to tell me where it is, and then you are going to take me there, or I will kill everyone in here.”

“And then you die.” I said slowly in a low voice. “Stop and think about it for a second. You do this here, a few blocks from the Tower, and you get the mighty fist of justice dropping on you like a ton of bricks.”

“They’ll try.” But she didn’t seem so certain anymore. Like I said, not the best self-control.

“And succeed, is the bit you forgot to include. So how about we take this outside, huh? Somewhere a little less public?”

“You’re just trying to lead me into a trap.”

“No, I’m trying to avoid a whole bunch of unnecessary deaths. Come on, E, you don't want to do this."

She twitched, as if straining against an invisible leash, and for a brief moment, I fully expected things to go to hell in a handbasket.

As soon as she moves, dive away from Lis. It's the only chance you'll have at surviving. You can't deflect the blast, because you didn't ready your power like an idiot. From there, grab one of the stools, and-

She lowered her arm, just slightly, so it pointed to the ground between us. "Fine."

I breathed out a long sigh. "See, was that so hard? Come on, Lis, that means you too," I said to my friend, putting a hand on her shoulder. Slowly, she let the bag drop to her side, her hand emerging empty.

We made to move, but Edith's hand shot up. I instinctively ducked away, but she wasn't pointing it at me.

"Not you," she said, brandishing her hand at Lis. “You stay here.”

She laughed scornfully. “Ya really are nuts, aintcha. Why the fuck would I just let ‘im go on his with you?”

I sighed. “Lis, the concern is appreciated, but I am not a child; I can take care of myself.” Truth be told, I’d actually have much preferred having Lis with me, but I didn’t want to aggravate Edith any further, not when she was so close to breaking. “Stay here, finish your drink. I’ll handle this.”

She frowned at me, actually showing concern. “Ya sure?”

I gave a tight-lipped smile. “Not in the slightest,” I admitted quietly. “If something goes wrong, I’ll try and stay alive long enough for you to come and save my ass.”

“You do that.”

I turned towards Edith, who rolled her eyes and snorted. “Sure you don’t want to confess your undying love before we go?” she asked snidely. I ignored her, moving towards the door, and she snickered to herself as she hurried to catch up. We walked out the door, snow and a wave of cold air blasting us in the face. I followed her as she started walking, keeping myself tense and ready for an attack 
which, surprisingly, never manifested.

After a minute or two, we came to an alleyway between two shops. She strode down it, and after taking a quick glance around, I followed her. About halfway down, where the shadows were deepest, she stopped and turned to face me. What little light there was cast her face harshly, accentuating lines and creases that I hadn’t noticed before, signs of wear that hadn’t been there the last time we’d seen each other.

The silence stretched between us.

“You wanted to talk,” I said at last.

“So talk.”


Calling 5-I

FLINT

Where the Light’s Even and Bright

My phone buzzed, rattling the dresser next to my bed. I groaned, rolling over and slapping my hand in the general area of the disturbance, hoping to get lucky. No such luck; the call rang out, then gave one final buzz for good measure.

I hadn’t actually been asleep, just in the half-awake fugue state between un- and –conscious. Still, no matter the circumstances, no-one likes getting disturbed at three in the morning.

I sat up and grabbed the phone, wincing from the pain in my ribs, which had diminished, but not disappeared, in the two days since I’d gotten the injury. I’d done a bit of research, and it didn’t seem to be a broken rib, but there was still the chance of a cracked one, so I’d been trying to avoid putting strain on the area. Thankfully, I wasn’t going out in costume anyway, and my job doesn’t really involve physical labor (except when it does).

The call was from Lis, of course. Knowing her, she’d have been up and about for a while now; she keeps pretty odd hours, and I’ve never been a hundred percent certain what she does and why.
I dialed back, and she picked up on the first tone. “Ya owe me a beer,” she said.

“Good morning to you too,” I replied grumpily. Wait, no, that’s what I meant to say. What actually came out was “Lis, it’s three in the fucking morning.”

“Yeah, and ya owe me a beer,” she said, unfazed.

“I swear by all that is holy, Lis, if you make me get up at 3 in the morning in the middle of winter, I will end you.”

“Come on, it’s not like you were sleepin’ anyway. It’ll be fun.”

It took my sleep-addled brain a second to process that. “Lis, are you watching me?”

I could almost hear the shrug. “This spot just happened to look in on your apartment, I swear.”

“And why did you ‘just happen’ to be in this ‘spot’,” I glanced at the heavy curtains covering my windows, “with a high-powered sniper rifle and infrared scope?”

“Hey,” she protested. “I don’ interrogate you about what you do in your free time.”

“Because you don’t need to, apparently,” I grumbled.

“Come on, Flint. I’ll just keep bugging you otherwise.”

I sighed. “Is anywhere even open now?”

“I know a place.”

-----

I rubbed my hands together, trying to keep warm. Light snow fell from the sky, coating the paths and buildings. It was cold as a goddamned arctic tundra, and I felt like a fragile package, swathed in bulky layers of clothing. I’d tried leaning back against the wall, but the cold had seeped through way too quickly for my liking, so now I was just standing outside the entrance to my building, watching my breath freeze in the air in front of me as cars rumbled past in an inconstant stream.

Someone tapped my shoulder, and I spun to find Lis standing behind me, somehow having gotten there despite the complete lack of corners or cover. “Gah!” I jumped backwards a little.

She laughed. “Oh man, the look on your face…” She grinned a lopsided grin. “Priceless.”

Lis is average height and kind of plump (though I’d only ever say ‘solid’ to her face), with mousy brain hair covered by a ratty beanie and a round face. Apparently immune to the cold, she was wearing an open hoodie over a tank top and cargo pants, and carrying a duffel bag that in no way contained various pieces of semi-illegal high-powered munitions.

“Ordinarily, I’d probably agree, but I’m too tired to actually care. Let’s just go and get this over with.”

We started walking, Lis leading the way, and as we did she elbowed me in the gut, and not lightly. “Come on, Flint. You’re being a real grumpy shit tonight.”

“Geez, maybe it’s cause I haven’t slept all night, and my friend was spying on me at three in the morning with a sniper rifle.” But I’d woken up enough now that there was a smile accompanying the words.

She snorted. “I don’ see a problem there.” We turned a corner, into the square.

“So where are we going, anyway?”

“A bar,” she said, deadpan.

“Har-de-har-har, very funny.”

“Well, excuse me. S’not my fault you fell out of the wrong side of the dumpster this morning.”

“Actually, it’s exactly your fault.”

“Ya can’t prove that.”

I threw my hands up in exasperation. “Why do I even bother?”

“Yeah, why do ya bother? Give into your hate.” She waggled her fingers at me.

I laughed. "If I gave into my hate, I'd probably go on a killing spree."

"He says like it's a bad thing."

"Don't worry, you'd be at the top of the list."

"Aww, how sweet." She punched me in the arm, but I barely felt it through my layers.

"So where is this place, anyway?"

“Just up here. It’s called the-” We rounded another corner into a small side alley.

“-the Barrel,” I finished flatly.

“-the Barre- wait, what?” She gave me a confused look. “How’d you-“

“Lis, I work here.”

There was a second of silence. “Great joke?” she said after a second, hopefully.

“No, unfortunately not.”

“Well, damn. Don’t I look an idiot.”

“Nah, it’s fine. Honestly, this is probably better.”

“What? How?”

“Because you presumably had some stupid plan to get us into the bar, didn’t you?”

She kept her face carefully blank. “You can't prove that."

I gave her a flat look. “You have a fake ID, don’t you?”

She gave a noncommittal shrug. “…might do.”

“Of course you do. How well did you think that would have worked?”

“Well, if it hadn’t, we could have just snuck in through the bathroom or somethin’,” she said, skillfully avoiding the question.

“Yes, two people coming out of the bathrooms together. Also totally not suspicious.”

She gave me annoyed look. “Well, then, what’d you do?”

We were coming up on the Barrel, tucked into a real hole in the wall, a small line shivering next to the door. There was a short, stocky lady at the head of the line: Indira, one of the other bouncers.

“Hey, ‘Dira,” I said, nodding to her. “Quiet night?”

She gave an almost imperceptible nod back. “Nothing major, yeah. You on shift?”

“Nah, I didn’t even know we opened this late.” I hooked a thumb back at Lis, “I owe my friend her a few drinks.”

She gave Lis a once-over, then tilted her head towards the door. I nodded my thanks, and we strolled inside. I pulled off my coat, and after a few seconds, Lis did the same: the Barrel has an excellent heating system. She looked around, taking in the tasteful d├ęcor. “You work here? You?”

“Yes, I do.”

“What d’you do, clean the floors?”

“Ha ha. I work as a bouncer.”

“Huh. That… makes a lotta sense, actually.”

“I’m going to choose to take that as a compliment,” I said loftily.

“You do that.”

The main room of the bar was moderately sized, with the bar along one wall, booths and tables around the other three, and a depressed area in the middle with a pool table. A TV was set into one of the walls, and a game of football was winding down on the screen. Something of a mismatch, from the looks of it. There were maybe ten or fifteen patrons, surprising considering the time and weather, and there was a low hum of conversation buzzing in the background. Most of the people were in the booths, with a group playing a game of pool, and Lis and I pulled out chairs at the bar.

“Hey, boss,” I said to the man behind the bar.

“Flint. You’re not rostered tonight, are you?”

“Nah, I didn't even know we opened this late," I repeated. "Just owe my friend a few drinks. David, Lis. Lis, David.”

She nodded to him. “Sup.”

“Sup yourself. What can I getcha, then?”

“Just some soda water for me,” I said. “Lis?”

“Pint of whatever’s on tap.”

“Coming right up.” David poured our drinks and slid them down the bar, and I nodded my thanks, pulling a crumpled bill from my pocket and passing it over. He nodded back and moved further down the bar to tend to a few new customers that had arrived.

“So,” Liss said through a mouthful of beer, “have ya heard anything from Talie yet?”

“Nothing,” I said, taking a sip of my own drink. “I really wish that was unusual.”

“Tell me about it,” she said with a grimace. She took another sip. “This is really good shit, by the way.”

“I’ll be sure to pass on the compliment. It’d be easier to deal with if she’d at least tell us where she goes, you know? Just, ‘hey guys, I’m going to my monthly out-of-town… AA meeting’ or whatever.”

“Or at least give us some way of communicatin’ with her, right?”

“Yeah, exactly. Especially with… all this,” I made a vague gesture with my hands, “going on.”

She raised her glass. “To our glorious leader,” she said. “May she wise the fuck up.”

“Amen.” I clinked my glass against hers, and we both drank.

“Speakin’ of ‘all this’, how’s everyone else doin’?”

“Dunno, really,” I replied. “I’ve mostly just spent the time sleeping and working. Honestly, I kinda wish I could just forget about all of this."

“And if I’m not mistaken, I believe that’s my cue.” The voice came from behind us, and Lis and I spun around, hands reaching for the weapons we would have to be idiots to not be carrying. Standing a few paces from us was a young woman, average height, brown hair with a skunk stripe, a long thin face, and brown eyes filled with hate.

Edith Ellis. A.k.a. Ado, leader of the Cabal.


A.k.a. my ex-girlfriend.

Talk 4-Vignette

Kill Yourself Working

Four weeks ago, or thereabouts.

Annabelle Park leaned back in her chair, absentmindedly chewing on a lump of tobacco that had long ago lost any flavour or texture. She’d gotten into the habit as a teen, when she’d had to spend a year living with her grandfather on his farm, and had never gotten out of it again, despite her dentist’s best efforts. Someday, she told herself, she’d quit, knowing full well she probably wouldn’t.
The chair squeaked as she wiggled around, trying to find the sweet spot she’d worn into the cheap fabric. The Tower may have been rich as Croesus, but you wouldn’t know it from the chairs they gave you. Dispatch was the core of most of their operations, and they wouldn’t even repair the espresso machine in the breakroom. Plus the chairs, of course.

Annie’s parents had taken her to NASA once, when she was little. For a five-year-old, the control room had been an overwhelming miasma of screens, blinking lights and beeps (although she’d realized that, considering that the room hadn’t been used in over 20 years, it was probably just a show for the kids). The Dispatch control center always reminded her of that memory. Hell, she'd always harbored a suspicion that it was intentionally designed to evoke it. Two tiered rows of desks led down towards a large screen on the front wall, arranged in a shape that was maybe a third of a full circle. Typical office vinyl flooring paired well the chairs, and less well with the oddly non-reflective walls and ceiling.
Currently, the large screen was showing a map of the city, with little blinking lights and icons positioned in various places, some with ID tags next them, some without. 

The dots represented all known locations of supers in the city, the icons known or suspected bases and haunts. That meant that the majority of the dots were clumped together on the Tower; she counted all of the Guardians, plus most of the Valiant and three of their indies. The snowstorm that had been covering the city for the last few days had initially caused an uptick in crime as people tried to take advantage of the slower response times, but as it had worn on the rate had slowed to a trickle as the same problems that had affected the response times started affecting them too. Because of that, the Dispatch room was staffed by a skeleton crew, consisting entirely of one Annabelle Park. She didn't live nearby, but no-one else was willing or able, and she'd been willing to come in for the sweet, sweet siren of triple-pay overtime with no supervision.

Though, she realized, she should probably at least appear to be doing something, in case someone walked in. She’d already come up with four distinct fantasies of what she was going to do with her money (and was currently pitting them against each other in an imaginary deathmatch. Very violent and all that jazz), and if she lost that she’d probably curl up into a ball and rock back and forth, muttering nonsense about jetski gladiators.

Forlornly, she turned her headset on and leaned forward, tapping the screen to bring up the list of currently active heroes. First on the list was Windstriker, currently on the south-side of the city, so she tapped the icon next to his name, and the call automatically rerouted to her headset. It beeped in her ear, and then the sound of sharp piping noises came streaming through.

“Dispatch?” the hero asked, obviously breathless from exertion. “What is it?”

“Routine check-in,” she replied into the mic, picking at her nose. “Anything to report?”

“What?” he asked, sounding confused. “I couldn’t understand a word you just said.”

Oh right. She turned and spat the wad of tobacco towards the bin she’d placed on the opposite side of the room. It hit the rim and bounced off, joining the three or four others scattered around it. She hadn’t gotten one in yet, but she wasn’t going to let something as trivial as that stop her. “Sorry, mouth was full. Anything to report?”

There was a grunt of exertion, and a noise that sounded suspiciously like an explosion. “No, nothing.” Another explosion, and a scream.

Annie leaned back again, and popped some more tobacco into her mouth. “See, some people would call you out on the obvious lie there, but I don’t actually care, and I really don’t want to have to do paperwork. Have fun.” She ended the call, and switched over to the log, noting a little N/A in the appropriate column.

She proceeded through the rest of the list with a bare minimum of effort, and was just about to make another attempt at the tobacco basket when small indicator flashed on her screen. She leaned forward to get a better look. It was the airspace sensors, detecting an incoming object not on any approved flight path, and/or smaller than any commercial airplanes. Air Traffic Control must've decided this was one for the Tower to deal with. Then again, she grumbled silently to herself, they also seemed to decide that large flocks of birds were for the Tower to deal with as well pretty often.

Switching to the channel ATC had given her, she hailed the incoming object. The band opened, so this was automatically better than the last few forwards she’d gotten from them. “This is New Chicago Tower Dispatch, hailing unidentified airborne object/person. Please respond.”

“Tower Dispatch, this is Stinger.” The woman’s voice was calm, but an undercurrent of panic could be heard below that. “Whatever you have, I need it right now. I cannot afford to stop moving.”

Annie sat up in her chair, suddenly alert. Something serious was happening. She quickly opened up the relevant information. “Stinger, adjust your altitude 1500 meters upwards, otherwise you’re going to end up on the wrong side of a passenger plane.”

“Believe me, Dispatch, that plane would end up on the wrong side of me,” she replied, her voice slightly wry and pained. “Acknowledged, adjusting now. If you have anyone who doesn't squish easily, it’d be a good idea to have them waiting for me. Something’s following me, I don’t know what it is, but it very nearly took a bite out of me, and I'm tough.”

“Shiiiit,” she said. “Okay, don’t take this the wrong way, but I'm currently getting paid triple overtime, and this is still way above my paygrade. Patching you into the director now.” She did the relevant button-pushing.

Director Cayle answered on the first tone. “Dispatch, this better be worth my time.”

“It is, sir. Here.” She patched Stinger into the call, and she reiterated what she’d said.

“Hmm,” he said after a few seconds, and he actually sounded worried, which made her worried too. “Dispatch, you made a good call. I’ll handle it from here.” The call cut out suddenly, leaving her alone once more.

She spent a few minutes trying to distract herself with the tobacco bucket, but it seemed a little shallow compared to whatever action was going on with Stinger. She could see the hero on the screen, approaching the Tower, but that wasn't really anything like actually watching it, and it was weighing on her mind now.

She went for another shot; at this rate, she’d be spending her overtime just on tobacco. She reared back and spat, but she’d put too much behind it, and it went flying over the basket and splatted against the wall next to the door, and next to the heroes who were just walking in.

There were three of them, from the Guardians; Comet, Thrust, and some kind of wooden person she didn't recognize, who must've been the new guy, Slump or something.

They all looked at the lump, as it slowly slid down the wall.

“Okay, I’ll shoot; is that normal around here?” Scrump asked, his voice weird and hollow.

“It is when I'm here alone,” Annie said, keeping a straight face. Now, change the subject, quickly. “Is there something I can do for you?”

“Yes, actually,” Comet said. “Is there anything currently going on that we can assist with? I would like to run Stump through some procedures in a live situation.”

“Not really, no.” She spun towards her console and pulled up the maps again. "I think Windstriker was in some sort of fight earlier, but he's probably done none. Cayle didn't want you involved in that mess upstairs, huh?"

The young heroes shared a glance. "What mess?" Thrust asked cautiously.

She whistled, a low tone that quickly petered out. "I guess he really didn't want you involved."

"It seems that way," Comet replied, and although her face wasn't visible behind her helmet, it was pretty clear what it would have looked like. "Thank you, Miss Park. Enjoy your tobacco." She spun on her heel and strode out, the others following her lead. 

After a second, Stump poked his head back around the doorframe. "You know that stuff's terrible for your teeth, right?"

She stared flatly at him.

He shrugged. "I'm just saying."

-----------------

The flight deck was one of the harder-to-access parts of the Tower, requiring multiple twists and turns that didn’t seem to actually make sense, including one sequence that involved taking four consecutive right turns in such a way that the corridors couldn’t physically fit together. Comet had long ago gotten used to it, and Thrust had never cared, but Stump seemed to be having a hard time with it. She seemed to be trying to map out the corridor in the head, making little gestures with her hands. “It’s not just me, right?” she asked. “This doesn't make sense. The flight deck is right on the top of the tower, but we haven’t gone up once.” She paused. “We are going to the flight deck, right?”

“We are,” she confirmed. “I can’t really explain it more than that; it’s just how the Tower is. You get used to it.”

“Or you get lost, never to be seen again,” Thrust interjected, not looking up from his phone. “Happens all the time.”

Stump snorted. “Sure it does, Carlos, sure it does.” She glanced back, then leaned towards her. “It doesn't actually happen, right?”

Comet allowed herself a small smile. “No, it doesn't. Carlos is just a dick.”

He shrugged. “Guilty as charged.”

After a few more turns, and a little dip, they arrived on the flight deck, into glare that hadn't been visible from around the corner when it really should have been. The hangar was maybe the size of a large barn, and was mostly empty, save for a few experimental hovercrafts lying here and there, products of the Tower’s resident Forge. Standing out towards the edge were a group of heroes, and Director Cayle in a rumpled three-piece suit. Snow coated the rim of the hangar, providing the source of the glare. And out in the distance, above the skyscrapers, a crimson dot was slowly but surely growing larger.

A grimace passed over the director’s face as they approached. 
“How much did you hear?” he asked, not bothering with niceties.

“Enough, sir,” Comet replied, keeping her face carefully blank. “We won’t get in the way, and I think we could be of some help.”

He sighed. “Fine. Just stay back. I don’t want to have to deal with-”

He was cut off as the crimson blur shot over their heads with a boom, crashing into the back wall. Everyone instinctively ducked, too late for it to have done any good if it was going to do anything, before rushing over the collapsed figure.

Stinger turned out to be a tall, thin woman, with crimson-plated armor that looked like it was designed more for aerodynamics than strength. Which, she supposed, made sense, considering she’d just crashed into a solid steel wall at the speed of sound and had come out unscathed. The rest of the heroes surrounded her, with Director Cayle kneeling down to talk to her, and the young heroes stood on the side and watched.

“Dammmmmmn,” Stump whispered. “That’s awesome.”

“God, you’re such a noob, Stump,” Thrust said, but he couldn't mask the awe in his voice.

Stinger groaned, and then winced, and Comet noticed something. Despite the fact that she’d come out of the collision without a scratch on her, two of the fingers on her left hand were missing, dribbling blood onto the ground.

Silently, she pointed to the wound. Thrust tilted his head at it, silently mouthing the words “what the fuck”.

“What the hell could do that?” Stump asked, more to herself than to the others.

That question was answered as the sudden distinctive chooming of the hangar’s autocannons roared out from behind them, and then suddenly cut off. Forge-created, they fired a range of munitions, ranging from immobilizing foam, through rubber bullets and all the way to Dragonkiller sabot rounds. Apparently, the software had made the wrong analysis of what to fire, because all ten cannons hung limply from their mounts, exposed wiring sparking behind shattered and crumpled casing.

On the edge of the hangar stood a man. He wore no clothes, and his hair was wild and tangled, hanging over a brutish face. And he was over nine feet tall and built like a silverback gorilla.

He laughed, flexing one hand, and then the other. “Cute toys you have here.”

Whatever people said about Director Cayle, no-one could deny that the man had balls made of steel. He didn't even appear to draw; a gun appeared in his hand in the blink of an eye, and he aimed it at the man, quicker than any of the trained heroes.“Identify yourself,” he called across the room. Around him, various forms of energy began to glow and flicker in the hands and under the skin of the supers as they readied themselves. Stump had switched into her much less humanoid combat mode, and red energy glowed around Thrust’s hands, but Comet made no move to begin charging her ability; she’d need to get in close to use it, and that would just get her in the crossfire.

The man laughed again, a deep, booming sound that echoed off the steel walls. “Arnold Cayle, it doesn’t matter who I am. Nor does it matter who she,” gesturing at Stinger, “is, either.”

“Then why attack?”

“Attack?” The smile that crossed his face was nothing short of terrifying. “Oh, Director, this isn't an attack.” And then his skin split apart, muscle fraying away from bone, hovering in the air. The terrible grimace on the skull matched the one that had been etched on his face not a second ago.

And then the skull exploded.

A whirling cloud of bone and flesh bore down on them, crossing the distant in what seemed like no time at all and tearing up the ground beneath it. It hit the streams of fire and ice, bullets, and bolts of energy that they threw at it, and passed through them like they weren't even there.

It reached the director, swallowing him up in the maelstrom. But, for whatever reason, none of the shards touched him, even as they gouged slashes out of the floor below him.

“This is a warning, Director Cayle,” the man’s voice said from thin air. “Return it. Or I will dispense with warnings.”

Somehow, even in his situation, he managed to reply. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” To Comet, it actually sounded sincere.

Somehow, his laugh was even more unsettling without a face to attach it to. “You will, Director Cayle. You will. Heed me, and none of this needs to happen.” And then he was gone, the maelstrom moving so fast towards the edge that it was almost a blur.

For a second, they all stood in silence. Then, unceremoniously, Stump leaned over to the side, retracted the branches covering her face, and vomited on the floor.