Enemies 9-III

Next Chapter

Previous Chapter

To Slit My Throat

“Skew? Skew!” Ricochet snapped her fingers in my face. “Ya look like someone started two-steppin’ on your grave.”

I ignored her, deep in thought. If these really were the same villains as the ones Wisp had told us about… I had no idea what the implications were, but I was pretty sure they were big. My brain started spinning, pieces clicking into place. Most likely, this was the place the Cabal had raided before we’d taken them down and confiscated their loot. The timeline fit, if this site had been abandoned after the security was compromised. The school terrorists, I mentally assigned them the name ‘Prowlers’ because bad guys aren’t getting cool names on my watch, according to Wisp they’d been after something, with the hostages a specific way of getting at it. And if they were here now, that meant-

“The fucking datapad!” I swore out loud. “Goddamnit, it’s the fucking datapad!” I couldn’t know for certain, but it fit. It fit entirely too well.

The outburst garnered me looks of confusion from the others, but I waved them down. “I’ll explain later.” Christ, this whole thing was getting way too convoluted, and I reckoned I didn’t even know the half of it. “Right now, we need to get down there. This place could have something important left over, and we desperately need more information.  More importantly, at least three of those four are the ones from that hostage situation at Dresden High a few days ago, and it’s dollars for donuts that they know something about,” I waved my hand about, non-specifically, “this. That’s two very good reasons to take them down here and now, while they’re not expecting us, because I suspect that if we don’t, sooner or later we’re going to find them on our doorstep.” I cleared my throat. “Any objections?”

Tide raised a hand. “What are their powers?”

I dredged up what Wisp had talked about. “Green cloak is a teleporter with some kind of aftereffect, metal mask fires a beam effect, combat gear is unknown touch-range, fourth woman is an unknown. Foresight, you couldn’t make her out?”

“No,” he confirmed. “At first I thought it was lighting, but she’s definitely doing something that makes her hard to look at.”

“Okay, so at a minimum some kind of light refraction. Yayyyy.” I looked at all of them in turn. “I’m guessing that means that you’re all in?”

Ribbon shrugged. “Busting faces is like 80% of why I do this.”

“Like you said,” Tide agreed, “we need to deal with this now.”

Ricochet snorted. “I’m with miss scene girl; let’s bust some faces.”

Foresight just grunted, and I thought I heard him mutter something about agreeing with the chink (his words, not mine. Remember, kinda racist).

“All right, then,” I said, gesturing for them to gather in. “Here’s the plan…”

-----

When planning a surprise attack, mobile targets should always be priority. You’d think it’d be the heavy hitters, and they're definitely up there, for sure. But, there’s only so much damage they can do from a stationary position, and the whole point of an ambush is to put them off guard. Any power with mobility can ruin that, and ones that can move others provide a possible turnabout. When we went up against the Cabal, Edith, with quick and deadly movement, was our first target, followed by Junction, who could’ve moved the whole group of them to another location. It’s the same principle.
This time, Green Cloak went first.

“I’m just saying,” she was complaining, loud and obnoxious, as she rifled through a drawer, “if you'd come with us, we could’ve easily gotten them to go along with our demands.”

“I said from the start,” the blurry woman replied, “that it was a stupid plan, and all you did is prove me right.” She was bent over at a computer screen, fingers flying across the keyboard. “All you achieved is getting yourself beat up and letting the Tower know that we’re in town. If you’d managed to drag me along as well, we’d have lost the only advantage we have.”

The masked man grunted, apparently in agreement. He was scouring the floor in a grid pattern, a rushing torrent of orange, red and white energy blasting forward from a point just in front of his mask, eroding the ground away where it touched.

“There's no need to be a bitch about it,” Green Cloak muttered, tossing the drawer aside. “What I don’t get is why this guy only told us about this place after we hit the school.”

“We're being played, obviously.” The last member of their quartet was leaning against the wall, arms folded. His navy combat gear was pitted and scratched, not stylistically, but in a way that suggested he had earned every blemish. “The only reason we’re going along with it is because we literally don’t have any other options.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s a really bad reason to walk into a trap-” she froze, her hands halfway into another drawer. “Can you guys see this?” she asked slowly.

“See what?”

“I… think I may have tripped some kind of alarm.”

The blurry woman snapped around to face her. “What?! But he said- what are you seeing?”

“Words, blue ones. Little boxes that look like computer messages. ‘Do not move if you value your nervous system’.”

“Well, don’t move, then,” Combat Gear said dryly.

“Why are you even here? You’ve done nothing but lean against that wall and snark at us.”

"I'm here for this exact situation, where we fall into a trap and you're too incompetent to get us out of it."

She glared at him, and shifted slightly as if about to move, but then froze again. "Dammit. Screw this, I'm just going to-"

There was a snap-hiss, and she convulsed as flickers of electricity arced over her body. She collapsed to the ground, and the others spun around, trying to determine where it came from. 

And that, ladies and gents, was my cue. 

I stepped out from behind a door frame, and found myself under the very hostile gaze of three supervillains.

"Good afternoon," I said in my best menacing voice. "I believe it's about time we had a chat."

Next Chapter

Previous Chapter

Enemies 9-II

Did You Know That.

Cape down, hood up, that’s the way I like to-

Nah, not going there. It’d be puerile, and gross.

And you thought I didn’t have standards.

The building was somewhere between 10 and 15 stories tall, each one rows of storage lockers. The ground level was the exception, with an abandoned lobby that looked like it was built 30 years ago and had been untouched ever since. The entrance was fairly clear, but as we progressed further in, dust began accumulating on everything in a thick layer, from the cheap plywood tables to the rotting wooden chairs, which were the ugliest shade of puce I’d ever seen (seriously, it was horrible). Each footstep kicked up thick, billowing clouds of particles, and those of us without facial coverings began sneezing and coughing as it blew into their faces. It was just Foresight, actually, which made it more satisfying, and I smirked behind my face scarf.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what was up with he and I. Did I sleep with his girl? Did he sleep with mine? Were we jilted ex-lovers, who now saw each other with a mix of loathing and lust?

Sadly (not really), it’s none of those. It’s not even anything interesting. Actually, I kinda wish it was the second one, because I’m pretty sure Edith tears the heads of her lovers after they’re finished, like a praying mantis. That would've been hilarious.

No, no it wouldn’t, that’d be murder and the thought of them, or anyone, going at it was gross enough without the addition of blood and viscera. But a man can dream, right? 

(No, no I can't. Just nightmares).

No, the simple truth of the matter is that when we first met, I was in a bad place. Angry at the world in general, twitchy and standoffish. So with Sanjay being the kind of person who picks at people as naturally as he breathes, we didn’t exactly hit it off, and the entire relationship just deteriorated from there. I’d like to think that if we met for the first time as we are now, we might be able to get along, but I guess we'll never know.

Oh! And he’s also kinda racist. So, probably not.

We stopped in the center of the lobby, Foresight still sniffling and covering his face with one arm. Judging by the undisturbed layers of dust, if people had come in here, they hadn’t done it through this entrance. A thought hit me. “There weren’t any external fire exits, were there?”

“No,” Tide answered. “Why?”

“Because it means that this is the only way up to the storage lockers, and no-one's come through here in a long time.” I spun around, taking in the scene. “Foresight, search around. Try and find anything out of the ordinary.”

He didn’t even bother glaring at me, just closed his eyes and stood there for a few seconds. It was hard to make out, but there was the slightest blue glow emanating from him.

He opened his eyes, and shook his head. “Nothing.”

I frowned. “You sure? No… strange alcoves or something”

“No. Thing. Nothing.”

“Hmm. Tide?”

She nodded, understanding what I meant, and bent down, one hand resting flat on the ground. There was a brief pause, and then-

You know when you drop a stone into still water, and you get that perfectly circular outwards ripple? Take that, but remove the stone and replace ‘water' with ‘literally anything non-living', and you have Tide’s power.  Although, how she did what she was doing now, sensing the makeup and structure of a surface by sending a ripple through it, still escaped me. It was probably one of those odd little things that help the power work, like how I could sometimes see the momentum of objects around me. I couldn’t always get mine to work, though, whereas hers was probably one of the most valuable tools in her toolbox. That, and creating meters-high walls of fast-moving concrete and tarmac. That was pretty useful too.

The tiniest of ripples spread out from around her hand, running underneath my feet like a bump in a travelator, and creating a smaller ring of dust trailing behind it. It disappeared once it hit the edge of the floor, but I could see it continuing out of sight around corners, bouncing off the walls. She straightened up, the ring of dust settling. “There’s something odd back there, through that door,” she said, pointing at one of the doors to the side of the entranceway, where the dust was light. “Something in the floor.”

I turned and looked at Foresight. “No thing, huh?”

He stalked off towards the door without replying, and I chuckled and followed.

“D’ya think we could convince him to get his head out of his ass for long enough to pull the stick out?” Ricochet joked from beside me. She’d slung her rifle over her back, and was carrying two automatic pistols loosely in her hands.

“Theoretically, I think so, but I don’t see any heavy machinery around here, so it’s a bit of a moot point.”

We shared a bit of a chuckle as Foresight flipped us off, extending his hand behind him without looking back.

Tide took the lead as we approached the door, with Ribbon bringing up the rear. We found ourselves moving down a cramped, dark corridor, at the end of which was-

“The bathrooms?”

Tide shrugged, and pushed the door open. “I didn’t make the place.”

At the very least, they were clean. About as disused as the rest of the building, actually, but this time there was a clear track through the dust, leading into one of the stalls.

“Bingo,” I muttered. We crowded around the stall, and I pushed open the door. Inside, there was a toilet. I looked at Tide, and she nodded. “This is definitely it,” she confirmed.

“Well, unless there’s a secret passage down the bend, I don’t-” 

"The toilet lifts up," Foresight interrupted. “There’s a crack around it."

I leant down to inspect it, and sure enough, there was. Stepping back, I gestured at it. "Ribbon, if you would?"

She grunted, and twin coils of fabric snaked down from her arms, slipping into the tiny gap, and pulling upwards. With a groan, not only did the toilet lift up, but the section of wall behind it folded back too, revealing a set of stairs descending downwards.

Ricochet whistled. "Damn. If that ain't the most supervillain-y thing I've ever seen, I'll eat a boot."

"I'll hold you to that," I replied absently. The stairs disappeared into darkness, rather ominously. "Okay, there's no way in hell we're walking down there unprepared. Foresight, recon."

There was some unintelligible grumbling from behind me, but the glow appeared again. His power confused me, honestly. I'd seen him use it in a way that appeared to imply enhanced reflexes or precognition, but then he could also scout large rooms in seconds, or pick out tiny details on someone's clothing.

"It's a lab of some kind," he spoke, voice oddly measured, as if he was timing each syllable. "It's too dark to make out much, but there are lots of benches, and computers and that sort of thing. It looks... like it's been abandoned, for at least a few-" His voice cut out for a second. "There are people here. Light up ahead. They're rifling through drawers, looking for something."

"How many?" I asked, tense. This could be bad. If they were anything like Mr. Meat Tornado power-wise, we were pretty much fucked. This was a recon team: our only heavy hitters were Tide and Ribbon, and neither of them did great in enclosed spaces. 

"Four," he said, sounding mildly irritated for some reason. "One that I can't make out, a man in navy combat gear, a man with a metal mask, and a woman in a green cloak."


Enemies 9-I

FLINT

Talk is Cheap.

Imagine the ugliest building you can think of.

No, uglier.

Come on, you can do better than that.

Ehh, that’s not great, but it’ll do for now. So take this building, this awful, awful building, and now imagine it surrounded by others almost exactly like it, all with their own unique hideousness. Now imagine that all the buildings except the original were demolished, and that through this sacrifice of metaphorical blood, the original gained their powers. You got all that? Good, because while the building across the road wasn’t that one, it certainly looked like an attempt to capture the platonic ideal.

Basically, it was a concrete turd, and I hated it.

“Ya know,” Lis said thoughtfully, one hand on her chin, “I kinda like it. ‘s got a sort of brutalist thing going, and I can get behind that.”

I glanced down at her. “Leaving aside the fact that that is objectively the worst building I’ve ever seen, how the hell do you know what brutalism is?”

“How do you?” she shot back.

“Lis, I was an art student, and I paid at least some attention. You, on the other hand…”

She shrugged one shoulder nonchalantly. “Internet.”

I considered this. “Okay, but why were you looking up brutalism on the internet in the first place.”

She flashed a grin. “Heard the name, thought it was some awesome martial art or summin. And then I thought it was pretty cool.”

“Fair. But seriously, that building is awful. Look at it! Someone had to have specifically made that brand of concrete for this specific look, because… seriously, look at it. It’s literally just two concrete blocks, joined by some other concrete blocks, and it doesn’t even have the decency to be rectangular! You can see the slant! It’s like a wobbly rhombus! Whose idea was this?

I took a deep breath. “You done?” Shauna asked from behind me. She was sitting with her back against the wall, tapping away on her phone. She’d taken off the mask and let her hair out of its braid, but still wore the sea-blue body armor, with the ripples sculpted in. Whoever Lis got the armor off had really outdone themselves with hers. I wasn’t going to lie; I was a little jealous. Mine was basically just recolored body armor with a hood and cape. I’d scratched a symbol into the breastplate, a stylized angle, just to try and give it a little more uniqueness, but at the end of the day it was still silver and grey. At least I was doing better than Lis: with her combination of a tactical vest, goggles, fingerless woolen gloves and black hoodie, she looked like a hobo commando. Not that I was going to say that to the woman with a sniper rifle, of course.

I took another breath. “Yeah, I’m done.”

She snorted, not looking up from her phone. “Sure. Now we just get to wait for the next little stupid argument you two have.”

“And that half-hour argument about the comparative superiority of Yendos cards wasn’t stupid?”

She chose, instead of responding, to ignore me and return to her game.

I snorted, and turned back to the window, leaning against the sill and staring back across the street at the abomination of a building. Lis was sitting on a folding chair next to it, her precious rifle propped on a table next to her. That thing was like her baby; she kept it in better shape than she kept herself, gleaming black and polished. It was a retrofitted Barrett 50. Cal, with four rails replacing the barrel, fitted at short intervals with the small magnets that accelerated the bullets, and a scope that looked like it belonged on a drone. I’m not a gun person, so I only know all this because she’s explained it to me. At length. Multiple times. Over protests, sometimes.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, we were watching the building we’d been told about by Fragment, waiting to see if anyone was going in or out. There hadn’t been any yet, just FYI. After finally managing to get back to the base, and deal with that Wisp girl, we’d done the only possible thing we could’ve done at that point; sleep like we’d never slept in our lives.  (I know it sounds like I was blowing Wisp off, and I guess I sort of was, but it’s just that I had way bigger things to worry about. Ordinarily, I’d have been all over that shit she was talking about). 

I’d woken up the next morning to find my phone buzzing like a hive of bees. Turns out Shauna had finally gotten round to setting up some sort of secure messaging program or something (she’d explained it, but I’d tuned out about five words in), and George had provided a summary of the events of the previous night. Needless to say, this whole debacle was now significantly higher on everyone’s priority lists; the chat for about thirty minutes had basically consisted of nothing but incredibly foul language and exclamations along the lines of ‘Why me?’. Which was actually a good way of putting my current mood, because, through some sort of group dynamic I couldn’t possibly have explained, I ended up on this little stakeout/investigation, despite being involved in literally every other part of this incredibly shitty situation.

I was a little grumpy about it.

The door clicked, and the three of us spun towards it, Lis and I reached for weapons, Shauna slapping her hand palm down onto the ground. Nat pushed her way through, saw us all, and frowned. Well, she was already frowning, but it got deeper, and frown-ier. I lowered my knife, and with a rustle of cloth, the multitude of small-caliber firearms she’d pulled disappeared back into her jacket. Shauna relaxed and smiled up at the other girl, and the frown softened a little.

Nat held up the paper bag she was carrying, which steamed slightly in the cold. She had a few of her piercings in, and I wondered how uncomfortable they must have been in this weather. “Grub’s here.” She tossed the bag at me, and I snatched it out of the air and opened it up. Packaged dumplings sat inside, condensation forming heavy droplets on the plastic containers. My stomach grumbled at the smell, and Lis made a snatching motion at the bag, which I foiled by snapping it away out of her reach. She growled at me, and I tossed one of the packages at her, then two more to the lovebirds, who were already sitting shoulder to shoulder and holding hands. Insert vomit noises here.

“Nat,” I said as I tore into my dumplings, “I am only going to say this once, so listen up. I do not entirely hate you right now.”

“Wow, thanks,” she grumbled. “That makes me feel appreciated. Plus, I doubt it’ll last.”

“Why not?” I asked through a mouthful of steamed veggies.

“That,” she replied, flicking her head towards the door. It creaked open, and through it stepped-

“You.”

Sanjay Singh, also know as Foresight, also known as 'a fucking shithead', glared at me, shutting the door behind him. He had bags under his eyes, and he was wearing a stained and torn beanie the color of old mustard. “Can we not, Flint?”

I cupped a hand over my ear. “What was that? You’re a little hard to hear, what with your head so far up your own ass.”

“Enough, you two,” Shauna cut in. “Sanj, why’d you come?”

“This moron’s screwed us over enough already; I wanted to make sure he didn’t do it again.”

I leapt to my feet and started towards him. “Oh, is that how you want to play this?”

He squared up, a smug little smirk on his face. “Bring it, you piece of shit n-”

“I said enough!” She slammed her hand onto the floor, and the resulting wave of concrete was large enough to knock us both off balance. We stumbled, and she stood, glaring at us both. “Sanj, you knew this would happen if you came here." Her accent had returned in full force, practically dripping from her voice with how thick it was. "Flint, if this is going to be how you’re going to act, why the hell are you in charge? Grow up, both of you.”

I raised my hands in surrender. She did have a point, and I did need to act like I was in charge, no matter how much I hated it.  “Fine, fine. Singh, you’re here now, so you might as well come along. Everyone else, finish your food, then suit up. No-one’s been in or out all day; I doubt they’re gonna. Lis, you doing overwatch?”

She shook her head, and began disassembling her rifle. “Nah. No lines of site in or out. I’ll come in with ya.”

“Really? You sure?” She didn’t get up close and personal very often.

“Sure,” she confirmed.

“Alrighty then. You work with Singh, your powers mesh well. 5 minutes, people, and then we’re going in.”

"That's what she said."

"Lis, please stop."

"That's what-"

"Stop. Just... stop."


Differences 8-Vignette


The Pride of [Subject Hometown Here].

The young woman who called herself Comet flew through the sky, trailing a fiery corona.

The flames surrounded her, clinging to her figure, ghostly and ethereal. They didn’t burn or even feel hot, although she knew that they could burn through steel. As she shot upwards, the whistling of the wind muted by her helmet, they left streaks of blue and red and orange hanging in the air, marking her passage.

As she reached the apex of her flight, the flames began sloughing off behind her, until she was at the peak, hanging unprotected in the air. Already, she could feel the harsh mistress of gravity beginning to reassert herself, the chain around her legs pulling her back down to earth, back to reality and back to her problems.
She would not have it. She was in control now.

With a slow breath out, she released the tension in her core, the one she had grown so used to maintaining that it had become second nature. She felt the spark ignite, the swell rise, and then the nimbus of cold power roared out of her and for the briefest second, she was whole again.

It didn’t feel like something was leaving her or flowing through her. It was more like… finally stretching out fully after a long, cramped car ride. As always, it sent a little shiver down her spine. It spun around her, holding her in place, far wider and stronger than she could normally let it be. There was nothing up here she could damage; just her and the sky.

Oh, and birds and airplanes, she supposed. But Dispatch had cleared her flight with Air Traffic Control, and any birds dumb enough to fly into the flames were probably better off dead.

The ghostly flames flickered into being, orange at first, then red, then blue, then finally white as they grew hotter and hotter. They swirled and eddied, forming an abstract flow of colors, and she couldn’t help but laugh with joy. These, more than anything else, were the moments she lived for.

For a few moments, she simply hung there, watching the fire spin around her. She could feel the burn beginning to set in, but she fought it for as long as she could, holding onto the moment for all it was worth. When the burning finally became unbearable, she released her hold on the flames and let them carry her up into the sky.

She rocketed upwards again, far faster than before, leaving behind a plume of rapidly dispersing fire. She punched through a cloud, leaving a spike behind as bits clung to her for a second. Again, she began to slow, and at the top she repeated the process, then once more.

Eventually she found herself far, far above the city. The air was thin, but she was used to it, and took deeper breaths without consciously thinking about it. The city spread out below her, an uneven disk shooting out from a central spire, with a large splotch of green disturbing the otherwise industrial colors. She was high enough that she could see Old Chicago too, a dull mass of grey and brown on the other side of the lake. She wondered idly if she could maybe fly over there. Lateral movement was harder for her, but she’d had an idea recently that she thought might-

A small window with a waveform on it unfolded on her visor, marring her perfect view and throwing her out of her own thoughts. She sighed, then made the small eye movement to answer it as gravity took over and she began to fall.

Mask… on.

“Comet.” She recognized the voice; it was that woman, Annabelle something or other. The Korean one. “There’s an all-hands on the West Side. The Ball and Chain. I’m putting the location on your visor.”

A small icon appeared, marking a building. “Acknowledged,” she said. “Anything else?”

“That’s a negatory, Comet.” There was a spitting noise, and she made a distasteful expression. Didn't she know that stuff was terrible for her teeth? “Dispatch out.” The window shut, but the icon remained.

She began steering herself towards the dot, shifting her limbs to direct the airflow. Ordinarily, she’d get joy out of even this, but she was on the job now. There was no time for that.

-----

Comet landed in a rolling carpet of flame on the street. The power inside her arrested momentum after a few seconds when let out, and she’d taken advantage of it to stop herself from splatting like a particularly bloody pancake.

Admittedly, if she had, she’d have fit right in. She remembered the Ball and Chain as the dive-iest of dive bars, a crappy establishment in a crappier building in an even crappier part of town. She didn’t remember looking like it had had a Red Cross van dropped on it. From orbit.

The roof had caved in, and debris was scattered everywhere. Not just wood, but flesh. Pieces of bodies were scattered around, and blood had been spread so liberally there was more blood than clear surface. Even through her helmet’s filters, she could smell it all, and she had to stop herself from gagging. Not now, not on the job.

Tower personnel swarmed over the site like ants, taking samples and cordoning off areas. Two men were at the center of the commotion; one in a rumpled suit and the other in a black and grey bodysuit with a long flowing cape. Director Cayle and Awestruck. Gingerly, she made her way over to them, stepping carefully to avoid getting blood on her boots. Awestruck looked up at her as she approached, and turned on a smile like a floodlight. “Comet! Good, you’re here.”

She nodded to both men. “Awestruck, Director. What happened here?”

The Director sighed, running a hand through his thinning hair. “We’re trying to figure that out now. A decent number of the superpowered criminals in this city, slaughtered like lambs. We don’t know how, but anything that can do this is a serious concern.”

“Then, with all due respect, sir, why the all hands? It seems like it would be better to wait until we’ve conclusively determined who or what did this.”

Awestruck responded instead of him. “We don’t know for sure, but the preliminary report suggest this was most likely the work of the same metahuman that assaulted the Director a few weeks ago. He seems to be a Dragon level threat at a minimum, and I wanted everyone to see this first-hand to emphasize that.”

She took that in, silently. She could understand the logic, she supposed, but something about it irked her. Something about him did. Awestruck was one of the greats in the public eye, but having actually met the man, she’d always found him to be rather… fake. He played the part that was expected of him, but every now and then she caught a glimpse of something underneath, something she wasn’t sure she liked.

“Director,” came a voice from behind her, and she turned to see a young woman in loose, floppy clothing walking towards them, flanked by a man and a woman, both in body armor. She was tall and thin, black hair in a 50s sci-fi bob-cut, and her eyes seemed to be staring into space.

“Ah, Miss Ivette. Have you found anything?”

She nodded, the motion slightly vacant. “It was your Primal Man who did this. Very violent. Very quick.”

Primal Man? Director Cayle merely nodded, though, looking disappointed. “Any idea why?”

She smiled at a point about a foot to the left of his head. “You know that’s not how it works.”

“I don’t, actually.”

“You do now.”

He sighed. “Is that all?”

“No.” She shook her head, then paused, then did it a few more times. “No, no, no, no, no. There were others, other paths I haven’t seen. Or have seen, but not yet. Or haven’t seen already. Definitely, definitely one of those…” She trailed off, but snapped back up after a second, spinning to face partially away from them. “Anyway. There were four, three that mattered. The Dame of the Plummet, a Man of Angles and the Deadly Touch. The Masks were there too, but they aren’t important. They fought off your Primal Man, scattered him to the winds. He’ll return, though. I can see the ripples he’ll make.” With that, she swept away, her bodyguards trailing behind. She hadn’t acknowledged the end of the conversation in any way, just assumed that because she had said her piece, they were done. It was refreshing, in an odd way.

“Sir? Who was that?” she asked the director, watching the girl go, twitching and moving on odd paths.

“Rose Ivette. She consults for us. We don’t use her often because… Well, you saw.”

“I did,” she acknowledged. “Sir. Man of Angles? To me, that sounds like Skew, of the Outliers.”

Awestruck tilted his head at her. “Who?” How did he not know about that? Did he not watch the news? Or for that matter, get briefed on anything?

Cayle nodded slowly. “You might be right. It would complicate this situation immensely, but it might also provide us an unprecedented opportunity.” He seemed to reach a decision. “I want you to take your team and bring them in. They’re connected to this slaughter, and that gives us a motive.”

She raised an eyebrow. “All of them, sir? They outnumber us.” She didn’t comment that there was almost no way the Outliers could have actually been involved in the slaughter part of the incident. Cayle was smart enough to realize that, and if he was ordering her anyway, it meant he didn’t care.”

He grunted. “You can request extra personnel as needed. Just get it done.”

She nodded. “Was there anything else, sir?”

“That’s all, Comet. Get it done.”

“Yes, sir.” She turned and strode away. Bring in the Outliers… no small task. They generally only concerned themselves with small fry, but that by no means meant that they belonged in that category. Skew and Ricochet, especially, had reputations for being slippery and tricky customers. Still, she had a few ideas that she thought might help.

And if that failed, well... 

Just because there were ten of them didn’t mean that she had to take them on all at once. 


Differences 8-V

I’ve Been Really Busy.

Sabah stared at me, frozen. Just… completely still. 

Oh crap, I thought, I broke her.

“Wha,” she stuttered after a second. “How- I don… wha…”

“Sabah.exe has encountered an error and needs to restart,” I suggested with a grin. She glared at me, then buried her face in her hands and counted slowly to ten. When she looked back up, her face was a placid mask, with only the barest hint of irritation. 

“Okay. Okay. What.”

I laughed, a little quietly. “Do I need to spell it out?”

“No, no, do not condescend me right now, Hanners, I will have a sh**fit.” She took a deep breath. “So. You have superpowers. How long?”

“Wednesday morning.”

“Wait, really? You’re being very casual for someone who’s only had powers for two days. I’d still be freaking out.”

“Well, yeah, but that’s just because you’re a total dweeb.”

“I’m pretty sure that using the word dweeb automatically makes you the dweeb, dweeb.” She paused. “Dweeb. Dweeb dweeb dweeb dweeb. What a stupid word.”

“Shush, you dwe… oh yeah, it is pretty weird, isn’t it?”

She fixed me with a glare. “I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to distract me with witty banter. It’s not going to work.”

“Ooh, banter. We’re having a real throwback day, huh?”

No.” She pointed at me. “No. Seriously, how the hell- heck are you this calm?”

I shrugged. “Not really sure, to be honest. It kind of helps that I’ve had… other things to focus on.”

She grimaced. “Oh right. I’m guessing you’re talking about the Outliers?”

“Among other things. We’re probably gonna want to sit down for this one, it’s a bit long.”

The living room was an odd mix of modern, chic furniture, and older chintzy curtains, rounded out by a tattered, worn rocking chair. I let some light in, with the happy side effect of hiding those awful curtains. If you hadn’t guessed, they were remnants of my grandma. Well, the curtains were. The chair was just very, very comfy.

I plopped myself down on the couch, and Sabah took the chair. She sat quietly while I ran over the events of the last two days. Getting my powers, my perspective in the cafeteria, getting the costume, testing them out. Fog and the Outliers. For the first time, I told the whole story. No editing, no selective descriptions or obfuscation. Just the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It was a really good feeling. I’m not naturally a dishonest person, and these last two days had really made me stretch that description pretty far.

I finished with the talk I’d had with the Outliers, and what little I’d been able to dig up about them. Once I’d finished speaking, there was a moment of silence. The chair creaked as Sabah leaned back into it. “Okay,” she said eventually. “I have a couple of things to say, so let’s just do them in order.” She cleared her throat and steeped her fingers in front of her face. “One. What the hell were you thinking?! Running around like that with a bunch of terrorists around?! You could’ve been killed!”

I stared up at the ceiling. “I could’ve been killed anyway. What was I going to do, nothing?”

“That’s a terrible argument, and you know it.” I didn’t respond. “Ugh, fine, be that way. I’m not forgetting about this, though. Two. Again, what were you thinking? Forget going to the Tower, have you even registered yourself?”

Oh, right. I’d actually forgotten about that. Every metahuman was required to register themselves with the DoM upon gaining powers, or face fines and other restrictions. It was another one of those security measures they instituted after 9/11, theoretically to prevent another event like it from happening. Personally, I didn’t agree; it’s not like the kind of people who’d even consider doing such a thing would be willing to register in the first place. But, that was just the opinion of one teen on events that happened before she was born, so give it as much or as little weight as you want. Point is, kind of a big deal, but in my defense, it wasn’t like I didn’t have other things on my mind.

“Look, I don’t want my name on some list, okay?” Not technically a lie, and it seemed like an answer. And just when I thought I was being honest again.

“And because you forget about it?”

“And because I forgot about it.”

She sighed. “Of all the people… okay, three. Wisp?” She sounded so perplexed.

An unexpected laugh snuck out of my throat. “I dunno, I was in the moment and it fit. I kinda like it, though. ‘s better than…” I grasped around for an example, “Stump.”

She gave an odd little laugh. “Haha, yeah. Fair enough, then. Wisp. Wisp. Wi-”

“Noooope, nope, enough of that. You’re not allowed to ruin my beautiful new name.”

“Beautiful may be stretching it a bit.”

“Shush, you.”

“Whatever. Four. These Outliers people do not seem like the kind of folk you should be messing with. Firstly, they’re criminals, even if only technically. Secondly, if your story was accurate, they’re involved in some serious shit. They were covered in blood. Whatever it is, you do not want to get dragged down into that.”

“Mhmm,” I acknowledged. “That’s fair.”

“Oh come on, don’t argue- Wait.” She titled her head.

“I agree. You’re right, and I’m going to try and avoid them if I can, at least for now.”

“…huh.” She deflated a little, the wind taken out of her sails. “Well alright then.”

“Frankly,” I said, “I’m surprised you haven’t tried talking me out of this yet.”

“Do you want me to?”

“Not particularly, no.”

“Good, because I’m not going to. Hannah, I know you, and I know you’re not going to let this go. And while the idea is good, I’m worried that your execution is terrible. You literally lucked into any information you have now, and you plan to go out and do it again?”

“No,” I said suddenly, “no I don’t.” I turned to face her, serious face on. “You’re right in that I need to do this better, but I’m not going to join the Tower. Fog was a b-word, what little I’ve seen of their methods seem useless. But I am going to play it smarter. I am going to use a plan. And I am going to find those three clods, and I am going to make sure justice is done.”

“…you know, it’d be a lot easier to take you seriously if you didn’t just say clods.”


Differences 8-IV

Here Are the Test Results.

“You are a horrible person,” Sabi said when I opened the door. “Seriously. You are objectively the worst.”

For the first time in a while, it’d hadn’t snowed overnight, and the late morning sun had already melted the frost away. It did me good to see some green, even if it was just the evergreens.

I’d slept like a log, like two logs, even, so before the doorbell had rung I had been happily snoring the day away. Although I’m sure I’d appreciate not wasting an entire day later, in that moment I was tired and groggy and really hating my past self.

“Good morning to you too,” I mumbled through a yawn, stepping back and opening the door. She immediately bustled past me, obviously relieved to be indoors. Judging from the way she'd wrapped herself up, pretty much every inch of skin covered in something, she hadn’t quite gotten over that last big bit of agoraphobia. I was impressed that she’d made it all the way over here, and worried that she’d hurt her own progress in doing so. It came in flares and bursts for her: sometimes, it’d be like nothing was wrong at all, then the next she’d be refusing to even look out the window. It always took a few days to come back from the worst ones, and she usually spent them indoors. I wasn’t sure if the fact that she’d walked all the way here three days after a bad one was a good thing or not.

She removed her soggy boots and left them on the doorstep, then closed the door and leant back against it, sighing. After a second, she began slowly shedding her layers, removing her coat and then the multiple scarves . “God, that's nice.” I’d turned the heat up a little higher than normal, primarily because my parents weren’t around to stop me. Eventually, she was left with just jeans, a long-sleeved tee and, oddly enough, a thin pair of black gloves. She caught me staring, and frowned up at me.

“Oh, like you’re one to talk,” she replied to the unspoken question. I was still in my pajamas, which may or may not have been pastel blue with fluffy pink and white clouds.

In my defense, they were very comfy.

“So what’s up?” she asked, folding her arms over her chest. “It better be good, I woke up early on a day off for this.”

“Have you eaten?” I asked instead of responding.

“Uh… no, but I don’t see how that’s relevant?”

I pushed off the wall and moved towards the kitchen. “Well, I haven’t either, so I’m gonna make eggs. You want eggs?”

“Umm, sure?” She followed me warily. “Hanners, what is this-”

“Shhhhhhhhhhhhh,” I said, pushing one finger towards her without looking back. “Shh. Eggs, then explanations. Heh. Eggsplanations.”

I shambled into the kitchen and began bustling around, grabbing eggs and a frying pan and milk and salt and butter and pepper and probably some other stuff too, I dunno. Sabi came in behind me and sat on one of the stools behind the bench. “Hannah, you’re making me a little worried here. Are you… okay?”

I threw the ingredients into the pan in some combination or another, not really paying attention. “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine. Kinda tired, though.”

“I can tell; you just put half a stick of butter into your eggs.”

I squinted down at the pan. “Huh. So I have.”

“Also, you’re making them in a saucepan.”

 “Huh,” I repeated. “So I am.”

“Should you really be around hot things right now?”

“Look, I know you’re worried, but I have spent an entire lifetime in my own presence. I’ve learned to handle it.”

She laughed at that. “You know I was talking about the pan, you dunderhead.”

“Ooh, dunderhead. Someone’s breaking out the big guns,” I mocked, pushing the eggs back and forth with a spatula. They were starting to vaguely bear some resemblance to edible food now. They were also very, very yellow.

“Says Little-Miss-Gosh-Darn-It,” she shot back.

I sniffed. “Swearing is vulgar and unnecessary. Insults are the best way to show someone you love them. You lazy, drug-addled twat.”

She leant back, a hand propped to her chest. “Ms. Kingsford, you wound me. You… nasty… person, you.”

I dropped the eggs onto two plates. “That,” I said, striding around the counter and plopping onto the stool next to her, “was quite possibly the worst retort ever. Of all time.”

“Shush, you.” She tried a bite of the eggs. “Buttery. I don’t know what I was expecting.”

“I know what I was expecting, and it was for someone to eat their free eggs without complaining.”

“Actually, I was expecting eggs with milk and butter. Not butter with milk and eggs.”

I shoved another spoonful into my mouth. “Mwll, I mrkk mt.”

“That’s just because you’ve conditioned yourself into believing that it’s good. It’s like Stockholm syndrome, but with eggs.”

“How dare you!” I gasped, sweeping the plate behind me as if to protect it. “Sure, he did some bad things, but Eggerton is a good man underneath it all. He cares about me, Sabi. He cares.”

She burst out laughing, and I did too. It was nice, to be able to just laugh.

I bumped my shoulder against hers. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too.”

We finished our eggs in silence. I’ve always thought that’s the measure of friendship; not how you act when there are things to say, but being comfortable when there aren’t. The food, if you can call it that, had helped bring me back to the land of the living, and by the time I was cleaning the dishes, I was at something approximating my usual levels of energy.

“So,” Sabah said as I cleaned. “I believe the promise was eggs, and then eggsplanation – explanation, dammit, now you’ve got me doing it.”

“That was the deal,” I agreed. “But I’m gonna need to lead with a question. Like I said, hero stuff. What do you know about a group called the Outliers?”

My back was to her, so I didn’t get to see her reaction, but it took a second for her to reply. “Uhmm, not much? Illegal vigilantes, dubious morality? And I only know that much because I’ve spent way too much time reading about this stuff.”

“Right,” I said, turning to face her. “Well, that’s not very helpful. Gotta say, I’m disappointed, Sabi. What’ll happen to your nerd cred?”

“I’m sure I’ll survive.” Her tone was jovial, but her face was tense, creased lines in her olive skin. “Hannah, seriously, why are you asking me this stuff?”

“We-ell,” I said, stepping away from the counter and beginning to walk around the bar again, “it’s possible it may have become immediately relevant to me.”

“Hannah,” she snapped, and I glanced at her. She seemed genuinely stressed out. “Enough shit,” and I recoiled, because she didn’t swear around me. Ever. “What. Is. Going. On.”

I sighed, then activated my power, took one step away, and turned it off. The clone disappeared into smoke, and I became visible again, giving the impression I’d just taken teleported. It was maybe not the most accurate example of my power, but it got the point across.

Her eyes widened. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” I said sheepishly. “Like, immediately relevant.”


Differences 8-III

Have I Lied to You?

I was back in front of the screen again, tapping away. This time, I'd been taking a multi-pronged approach. Prong One, the hero Fog. Prong Two, the Disciples of Shiva. Prong Three, the Outliers.

I yawned, rubbing at my eyes. It had been a long day, long and exhausting, but at this point, I was too tired to actually sleep. Beside me on the desk sat three empty mugs of tea, a half-eaten cold pizza, and two phones: mine, and the mobile I'd gotten from Flatline. I wasn't expecting either to ring, especially not the latter, but I liked having it there. A reassurance, I suppose, that, yeah, that had just happened. My mobile was there for the inevitable call from Mom telling me that, ‘hey Hanners, super sorry, but I’m not going to be home anytime soon’. For clarification, it was currently 2:30 in the morning, and there had been zero prior communication from her. As you can guess from my tone, this was not an uncommon occurrence.

“Oh, woman up, Hannah. Boo hoo, my mom stays out late working, my life is so hard. Also, I have no friends and no life.”

You know very well that's not the issue here.

“Then why are you whining about it? Deal, and move on.”

That's your helpful advice? ‘Deal’? Lemme guess, your advice for dealing with depression is ‘stop being sad'. OCD? ‘Just stop doing that stuff'? Gosh, you're really helpful.

“You know, if all you're going to do is snipe at me, why are you even bothering to-”

I took a swig of one of the cups of tea, and grimaced at the bitterness. Twice now, I'd absentmindedly ducked down into the kitchen and made myself a cup, only to come back to my desk and notice the cup or cups already sitting there. Like I said, tired. At the same time, though, I was strangely awake, buzzing, even. I was having no trouble keeping my eyes open, and when I wasn’t typing, my fingers had started tapping patterns into the wood of the desk with no input on my part.

“Mmmm. And I’m sure that has absolutely nothing to do with the five mugs of way-too-strong tea you’ve had in the last hour?”

Five?

“You actually remembered to take two of the cups back, surprisingly.”

Well, I guess that explained that. I was tired enough to start having a spotty memory. Wait. I got rid of you.

“Yeah, I’m having none of that. I have things to say, darnit. The revolution will not be silenced!”

If you start singing Les Mis, I’m going to start taking anti-psychotics.

“Do you hear the people whine? / Moaning about their sorry lives / it is a sad pathetic lonely sight for those who witness it.”

I’m not joking. I will go to a doctor, and I will say ‘whatsup, doc? I hear voices, can I have some drugs for that?’ and they’ll say ‘sure thing, kiddo’.

“Nah, you love me. ‘sides, we’re not actually crazy, so the meds would just make you all weird.”

You’re not allowed to be right. I’m too tired to be making coherent sense.

“Yeah, well, we’re just that good. Speaking of, meaning completely unrelated, first night in costume! Wanna talk about it.”

Yes. I do. With an actual person. One who wasn’t there the whole time, and isn’t just a voice in my head who already knows all the details.

“Well, too bad, ‘cause you’re stuck with me.”

I sighed. It was… a mess, frankly. I mean, I hadn’t even intended to go out properly. And then everything just snowballed from there. The mugger, and then Fog… jeez, Fog.

“She was a real b-word, huh?”

I know! She was just so… unpleasant. Man, Sabi’ll be crushed when I… if I tell her.

“So you’re gonna tell her?”

…I’m not sure yet.

“Mmm. Anyway. The Outliers?”

Yeah, that was just weird. I didn’t even know there was any significant vigilante presence in the city. There wasn’t much on the Outliers. Before yesterday, the name had only come up in the news once or twice, off-hand mentions that could only be related to the group if you already knew the connection was there. Since about a year and a half ago, there had been a drop in petty crime and lower-level superhuman conflict; not majorly, but definitely noticeable. Seeing as there had been seemingly no cause for it, it had just been factored into sociology papers and reports about the decline of the superhero and all that type of crud. Some people on the boards that I’d found while archive-diving speculated that there was a group of street-level heroes responsible, but the theory had never gained much credibility. New Chicago has never been well inclined towards that sort of thing; it’s the city with the largest Tower presence, considering their namesake is actually built here, and 9/11 is still strong enough in the memories of the locals that they get a lot of goodwill automatically. As such, vigilante justice, which had a highly varying acceptance rate in various cities and states, was held in very low regard. So to find out that there had been not just one vigilante, but a whole group of them, operating for over a year was a bit of a shocker. The boards were getting pretty heated, and I’d stayed far, far away from that whole clustertastrophe.  

“You seemed pretty eager to trust them.”

Well, they were they only people that night who acted with a modicum of decency. I mean, they were better to me than the actual hero, for heaven’s sake!

“And absolutely nothing to do with the fact that that Skew lady was pretty hot?”

Oh my god, will you ever grow up?! No, no, and no. Obviously not. They saved that guy from being killed, and helped me out. I think they’ve earned at least a little trust.

“But also because she was hot?”

If I say yes, will you shut up?

“You know I won’t. So what’s next, then? Hint; the answer is sleep.”

No, it isn’t. I spun back to the computer, pulling up an online map. The next step is this place. I tapped the location I’d marked, the abandoned Disciple base, pondering. I’m not exactly sure if I’ll be able to find anything, but it’s the only lead I have.

“It’s pretty slim, alright. But, and I’m definitely not hinting at anything here, but are you really going to walk into that place running on no sleep and way too much caffeine?”

No, I’m not. Partially because I’m going to get at least a few hours of sleep, but partially because… I grinned as an idea hit me.

“Ugh, just say it already, I know you’re dying to.”

I have a cunning plan.

“You’re the worst.”

Same person.

“Shut up.”

I shut down my computer, then stood, stretching with another yawn. I picked up my phone, and checked it to find the expected message still hadn’t arrived. I sighed, and double-checked my messages, but there was nothing since Sabi a few days ago.

Speaking of trust…

I hesitated for a second. Then, before dropping the phone onto its charger and trudging off to bed, I tapped a message into the screen and sent it flying off into the digital ether.

TO: Sabah ANDERS

"hey boo. can we talk?" 

"Heroes stuff.”


Differences 8-II

How Have You Been.

“Wait, wait, wait, hold up. What did you just say?”

We were standing inside one of the abandoned warehouses along the river, not too far from the one I'd been testing my powers. Apparently, the… Outliers, that was it, had made something of a base of the place; although from the outside, it appeared just as decrepit as its surroundings, the damage to the interior had been repaired, if a bit amateurishly. There were functioning lights, dropping down from the roof to hand above a large table, chairs and a raggedy couch in the center of the room. At the far end of the large space, another dim bulb illuminated an old wooden desk with a modern looking computer and monitor sitting on top. For some reason, Matrix-esque lines of code streamed down the screen in a never ending waterfall of letters and numbers. Maybe it was the screensaver.

Before I could continue telling my story, Skew had insisted we get out of the cold, despite it actually being pretty balmy for winter. Judging by the way her head had been twitching back and forth, like she was trying to keep on eye on everything around us without actually moving her head, it was probably more about being out in the open than the temperature. They’d come back here, to their base, which explained why they'd happened across my little tat with Fog, if it was just happenstance. As they’d led me through a practical maze of dark, dusty offices out the front, I had begun to seriously entertain the rather silly notion that they might just have wanted a convenient place for an execution, and so my real body was currently standing about halfway back into the offices, tucked into a corner. I’d had go stop briefly while switching over, but I'd excused it as having thought I'd heard something. Trust, but verify, you know?

In the light of the room, patchy as it was, I got a better look at the three… vigilantes! That was it, where I’d heard the name before, the Outliers were that vigilante group I’d found in my research, associated with… that big robbery. Ah. I’d have to ask about that one. Anyway. The three of them had visibly relaxed as we entered; Skew had pulled back her hood to reveal a mass of glossy black dreadlocks bound back in a ponytail and the guy had somehow managed to pull off the balaclava from underneath his goggles, like a magician whisking a tablecloth out from underneath the table settings. He turned out to have a shock of disheveled black hair, and a small, pursed mouth that made me think he was sucking on a lemon. Freefall-and/or-Flatline, the other woman, had shed her fleece-lined jacket, and I noticed that there was a rough, blood-stained bandage wrapped around her left hand. 

In fact, they all seemed kind of beat-up. I hadn’t noticed in the low-light conditions, but all three of them were splattered with blood to various degrees; the woman just had flecks here and there, but Skew had some liberal splattering going on, and the man’s boots were almost completely coated, though I only noticed it against the black because of the odd glossy sheen. On top of that, bits of their costumes were torn or ripped, and I could pick out a myriad selection of cuts and tears. These people looked like they’d been through a wringer, and oddly enough, it made me just a little bit more willing to extend some trust. Following their example, I pulled down my hood and let my hair hang out. I don’t know if they even noticed, but it felt… appropriate, I suppose.

Anyway (again; I’m getting distracted), once they’d settled at various places around the table and couch, I continued… well, started, my story. Edited, of course. I tried to leave out any details that would be specific pointers to my identity, but they didn’t seem to be that interested in those parts. What got their attention, though, was when I described the sudden appearance of Black Armor.

“You’ve got to be f****** kidding me!” Skew exclaimed, pushing her chair back with a scraping noise and shooting onto her feet. “This guy. Tall, looks like he ate another entire human being and absorbed their mass? Talks like some kind of ‘noble warrior’?”

I leaned back slightly. “Um… yeah, though I don’t think I’d phrase it quite like that?”

She buried her face in her hands and made a muffled scream. “F******… arghhh!” Without looking, she stuck her hand out towards the man. “Phone.”

With a sigh, he tossed it towards her, and she caught it with a swipe. She punched a number in, rapid-fire, then turned and began pacing as she put it up to her ear.

“Godd*****, if I lose my phone over this, I’m going to flip my s***,” the man muttered. He had a strong English accent, and somehow, it made the vulgarity a little hilarious.

Less hilarious, though, was Skew. She paced for about ten seconds, her face getting more and more strained, until she reached the end of her little track, spun smoothly on one leg, and hurled the phone at the opposite wall, where it smashed into a scatter of disparate pieces. This was particularly impressive because the wall was a good 20 feet away.

“Called it,” Flatline (I’m pretty sure, so I’m just gonna stick with that) said, and Freefall snorted. She’d pulled a medical kit from somewhere, and was re-bandaging her hand.

She let out a stream of truly awful swearing, so bad that I almost covered my ears. “Why? Today, of all f****** days, why?!” She collapsed back into her chair. “I’m gonna kill him. Really. I will stab him and he will die.”

“So…” I hazarded. “I’m guessing this guy is one your posse?”

“Yeah,” she sighed, “Stonewall. And not only did he take on three supervillains in an environment full of bystanders, but he then provoked the heroes at the worst possible time.”

“Well, he did, you know, save a whole bunch of people from being held hostage by terrorists?” I didn’t consciously make it a question, but it came out that way anyway.

“Yeah,” she repeated. “Still, it’s just… really bad timing.” She paused. “Sorry about that. Please continue.”

There wasn’t much more to tell. I finished the school confrontation, then quickly described what little information I’d gotten from the Disciple before Fog had showed up and the whole thing had gone downhill.

“So yeah, that’s where I’m at. Hopefully, I can get follow the leads from there. Tomorrow, though. Right now I need to go home and cry.”

That got a smile out of Skew. “I feel that. I know the base you’re talking about. It’s not as near as he implied it was, but it’s not far away. Didn’t know that’d happened to them, though.”

“Mmm. I’m hoping I’ll be able to follow them from there, but honestly,” I admitted, “I’m sort of making this up as I go along.”

“Yeah, about that,” Skew said, leaning forward. “Now, don’t take this as a criticism, but what you made you just… up and go at this? Most people would’ve gone to the Tower if they wanted to go into heroics.”

I rubbed at the back of my neck awkwardly. “I… don’t really know, to be honest. I just… I wanted to do something, and… something about the heroes just rubbed me the wrong way, I guess? I just… they were kind of unpleasant, honestly, and…” I trailed off. “I guess when I say it out loud, it sounds kind of strange.” Truth be told, there was no concrete reasoning behind it. I’d just set myself on a path and followed it, without doing too much thinking about the why.

“No, no, I get it. Believe me, we know all about that.”

“Tough.” It took me a second, but I realized it was the woman, Freefall, speaking for the first time. “Going in there on your own.”

“Hey,” I said, a little indignant. “I can handle myself.”

She raised her uninjured hand. “Not what I was saying. Want help?”

Surprised, it took me a second to reply. “Ummm…”

If that counts as a reply.

“Sorry, Freefall, but I’m gonna have to cut you off there,” Skew interjected. “Ordinarily, we’d all be more than happy to help, but right now, we’re kind of busy with our own thing.”

“Oh yeah, right, the robbery thing.” They all turned to stare at me. “What? It was on the news.”

She shook her head. “Anyway, we’re going to be all tied up with that, so I’m afraid you’re on your own.”

“That was the plan anyway.” A thought struck me. “Maybe, then, we could… help each other out? I help with your thing, you help with mine? Uh, you guys… didn’t actually steal the money, right?” I added belatedly.

“Hah. No.” She sat back, looking thoughtful. “I dunno if I want to get you involved in this pile of shit, but as a general idea, I think it’s a good one.”

I smiled, behind the scarf. “Great. Is there some way we can contact each other?”

Without missing a beat, Flatline pulled another phone out of his pocket and tossed it to me. I flinched back, but managed to snatch it out of the air. “Burner phone,” he said. “One number on there, belonging to a matching phone I’ll keep.”

I looked down at the unassuming piece of plastic. “Oh, okay. Brilliant.”

Skew grinned at me. “At this point I’d say welcome to the Outliers, but seeing as you’re not actually, let’s just go with ‘happy acquaintanceship’.”

 “Yeah,” I agreed, “that’ll do for now.” I still wasn't sure if they could be trusted entirely, but... 

It was a good start.