I considered Muwth’s statement for a moment. There was more story to it than I could expect her to share. More than I wanted her to share. I decided it was better just to drop it. “I have one more thing, but it concerns Anima as well.”
“One last thing, first. Now that you know what a surge means, are you still going to go after Kitten? You can’t beat her as you stand. Are you willing to make the sacrifices needed to change that?”
If I surge for the necessary power, it means risking Laura’s life. “If I don’t go to Kitten, she’ll come to me.” I was ashamed that I even hesitated. “If a surge isn’t an option, then I’ll find another way.”
Muwth tilted her head up. “Anima, we’re just about done. It’s your turn, now.”
Her turn for what? I didn’t have time to really think about it, before the door opened.
Anima walked in, and I noticed she altered her costume so it hid her eyes. “Did you get the answers you were look for?”
I was about to answer, when Muwth cut me off. “I think so. Not the happiest of answers, granted, but that was to be expected under the circumstances.”
Somehow, I didn’t think they were talking about my questions. Seemed like everyone had an agenda these days. Ferne was nice to me, all the while hoping to turn me into a resource. The heroes wanted to add me to their collection of soldiers. Cassie was using me as some kind of status symbol or whatever. And Kitten was… I had no idea what her game was, just that something was going on in that twisted mind of hers, and it included me.
And now there was Anima and Muwth, two more incredibly powerful Imbued who had taken an interest in me, to ends I wasn’t sure about. “Yeah, turns out surging on purpose is off the tables. Guess I’ve gotta find another way. Which is why I’m going to form a hero team. I’d like you to be on it.”
“I don’t do ‘hero’. It’s just a way to get your family hurt.” Anima’s tone was acid and ice. “Join the police if that’s what you want.”
“I don’t want to be some bureaucrat with a badge.” This was not a crowd that was on my side, but Anima and I at least shared a contempt for the cops. “I want to do it right. Actually helping people for the sake of helping people.”
Anima didn’t seem too impressed. “And how do you plan to do that?”
“There’s a lot of power in this room. You alone are a match for most hero or villain teams, to the point that villains would rather surrender than fight you. If my research is correct, they usually do rather than have a rematch. You scare Kitten.”
“Is that what this is about?” Anima crossed her arms. “You can’t beat her, so you want to get me to do it. I am not interested in fighting your battles for you.”
I shook my head. Dammit, I pushed the wrong button. She’s not the type that wants to hear flattery about her power. “That’s fine, I don’t want you to. If I was giving Kitten a fight, there’s not much in this city for me to fear. But while I’m fighting, someone needs to be there to get the bystanders out of the way. I can take care of myself, but only myself. You can do a lot of good as a hero just by protecting the innocent and saving lives while I send the bad guys to jail.”
She wasn’t moved by that idea. “When I said I was a pacifist, I meant it. I don’t hunt people down for fun, or profit, or glory. I don’t want that life for myself. And I don’t want to help you chase that life, either.”
I ran my points through my head before turning toward Muwth. Anima was a lost cause for the moment. “And you’re ranked as maybe the most accurate precog on the planet.” She got that by having one of the shortest ranged and least versatile forms of future sight, but thus far she had been right every single time her power was tested, including against other precogs. “Haven’t you ever wanted to use that to help people?”
Muwth’s eyes were appraising. I got the feeling she knew what I was up to, and was going along with it just to see what I did. “I donate an average of five hundred million dollars a year to charities and other causes I believe in. Do you imagine you could make a greater difference by going around fighting street crime?”
Five hundred million dollars?! “How?”
Muwth smirked at me. “Back when I was around your age, I painted my career into a corner. Now I live in a sort of cold war state. Many powerful people and organizations covet my abilities. Some would prefer to simply force me to serve them, but fear the wrath of other powerful people should they try. If I were to quit offering my services to those who can afford them, that protection would vanish and I’d become a resource to be conquered.”
I spared a glance at Anima. Behind her armor, there was little body language for me to read, but I got the feeling this was the first she was knew about this. “That’s pretty fucked up.” Oops. “Umm, pardon my language.”
“It is, as you put it, fucked up.” Muwth’s tone was, if anything, older than it had been before. “But complaining changes nothing, and as far as gilded cages go I have a rather nice one. I charge inordinate amounts of money, not because I value it, but because I want my customers to value me. And I might have a bit of a vindictive streak. That the money can go to helping others is… comforting. So again, what do you think you can do that’s worth more than what I already do?”
I hesitated, glancing back and forth between the two women. They were older, wiser, and metric fucktons more powerful than I was. I needed a way to impress them both. I needed to offer something they couldn’t do, a way to help. Something that was proactive instead of reactive, something that Anima couldn’t call revenge and Muwth couldn’t do with money. “Prevention.” It was the first thing I could think of.
I must have said nothing for a bit too long, as Muwth spoke up. “We’re listening.”
Oh, right, now to explain it. “All the money in the world can’t undo pain. Maybe make it easier on the victims, but your money can’t remove the fact someone had to suffer in the first place. Sure, you could find a healer to fix some of it, but I’m sure if the victims were asked they’d rather not be beaten or stabbed or raped or murdered in the first place.”
Muwth was the smartest, or at least the most knowledgeable person in the room, and probably used to thinking things through. Now that I had her on the right track, she would be better at convincing herself than I could ever be.
I turned toward Anima. “And you, if you knew someone was going to be hurt, you’d protect them right?”
“Of course I would. But hunting down criminals like a vigilante isn’t the answer. If that’s what you want to call help, join the police.”
“I’m not talking about hunting them down. I’m talking about being there before they get a chance to act. We can fix problems before they happen.”
Muwth cleared her throat. “I’m afraid you may be overestimating my powers. I can only predict deaths, and then only if I’m focusing on that specific person. Locating a crime prior to commission with any accuracy is virtually impossible for most Espers, and I am no exception.”
“Was impossible, before,” I said with absolute confidence. “But before you didn’t have access to someone who could suicide himself a thousand times an hour if that’s what it took to send the message back.”
Muwth and Anima exchanged glances with each other. I had them.
Nine hours later, I was in front of an alleyway. The sound of a woman’s voice, yelling something in spanish that I didn’t understand. She sounded distressed, and when I got around the corner I could see why. A big man was groping at her, having already pulled her top down. Her face was bloodied, but she was still fighting back like a wild animal against her much larger attacker.
I felt my blood start to boil. Hispanic or not, crap lighting or not, I could tell the girl was young. Younger than me, probably. Memories of Erica at our house, getting patched up by Laura for a black eye or split lip hit me like a truck. I clenched my hands and shouted. “Let her go!”
The man didn’t even bother looking at me, he simply slurred at me while struggling with the girl. “F’ckff, buddy.”
“Oh, I was hoping you’d say something like that.” I bolted toward him recklessly, remembering all of Alex’s advice. Football tackles offered a lot of raw power, but left you dangerously vulnerable to counter attacks. Great for a sport’s game where there were rules, bad for a normal fight, perfect for me. I hit him hard enough that I was copied before we hit the ground. For the first time, my opponent looked at me. Other than being obviously sloshed, he looked normal. I kinda expected rapists to look, I dunno, sinister or creepy. This was just a slightly balding, slightly overweight white guy.
“Wha’oo do da fer?” I could smell the alcohol on his breath even from where I was standing. A rapist and a drunk. I was going to enjoy this.
I heard the click of shoes, and turned to see the woman running away. The drunk screamed in rage, and I turned to fight him again. There was a sudden, horrible pain in my leg and I copied over. No idea where the guy got a tire iron from, but he managed to embed it in my shin.
So I kicked him in the face, and sent him tumbling back. Disoriented, he struggled to turn over, and then started throwing up on the ground, coating his arms. This was clearly the most deadly foe I’d ever face in my heroic career. While he was busy, I took out my burner cell, courtesy of Muwth, and called the cops.
“Nine One One, please state your emergency,” A nasally sounding man answered.
“Uh, yeah, I just interrupted an attempted rape. The victim ran, but the g-oof!” I was slammed forward, and lost my hold on the phone. By the time my new copy got oriented, it was in time to watch the drunk attempt to punch me in the back of the head, only to have his hand pass through light and meet the asphalt.
I kicked him hard in the stomach. “STAY DOWN!” A thought later and my phone returned to my hand. “Umm, are you still there?”
“Yes, what happened?”
“As I was saying, the rapist is still here, and I’d really like you to get a cop here before I have to kill him to make him stop fighting back.” Handcuffs, yeah, those are a thing I need to invest in. “We’re in the alley on Lord street, between fifth and seventh. Don’t suppose you can tell me why there’s no sixth while I’m here? Oh, and you may want to send an ambulance.”
“I’m sending someone now. Please stay on the line so we can give you further instructions.”
The would-be rapist climbed to his feet, and stumbled toward the street. “Sorry, gotta go.” I flipped the phone closed and bolted forward again, this time sending a mental command bringing my baseball bat to my hands. One of those things Dad bought me, in an ever-so-subtle attempt to get me interested in sports. I hit the guy’s ankle, tripping him. I didn’t want to touch him… I’d had enough of being covered in bodily fluids after a fight.
The drunk started sobbing where he lay, not even bothering to turn his head. He was still crying when the cops got there, like ten minutes later. And the first thing those assholes did was shine a flashlight in my eyes. “Drop the weapon!”
I let the bat fall to the ground, using my hand to shield my eyes. “Hey, I’m the one who called you!”
The light dropped, and I could see the other cop checking on the drunk. He didn’t seem to happy. “Thunk god y’r here, off’sir. Ah’d like to r- ruhport a crum.”
“Sure, let’s just get your injuries looked after first.”
“Ahm fine. A woman robbed m’.”
Robbery my ass. “You were trying to rape her!” ‘My’ cop never took his eyes off me, but seemed content to let us talk. Probably wanted to get evidence before arresting someone and Miranda rights kicking in.
“Sh’ owed me!” The drunk tried to look at me, but the cop checking on him kept him from moving.
“Sir, you may have a spinal injury. It’s not safe for you to move before the paramedics get here.”
“Oh.” Then he started crying again. “Ah pad her an’ den couldn’t get it up and she wouldn’t give m’money back. An’ this guy beat me up!”
The cop watching me finally spoke. “Is that true?”
“I’d like to add that there was a struggling half naked woman here when I arrived, that he was beating her in the face. She ran away while I was distracting the, uh, perp. I don’t know if she was a prostitute or not. And I stopped hitting him when he stopped fighting back.”
The cop checking the drunk looked up. “The injuries on his hands and arms appear to corroborate the story.”
“And what were you doing out here at this time of night?”
“Just going for a walk.”
The cop’s voice deadpanned. “At one in the morning. While carrying a baseball bat.”
“I take very vigorous walks.”
“Uh huh. Can I see some identification?”
“Sure.” I fished into my pocket for my driver’s license, and handed it over. He took it and slid it into some device he had on his belt, then handed it back to me.
“We’re about five miles from your address, Zach.”
“Like I said, vigorous walks.”
“This is a dangerous neighborhood, son. You could get hurt out here.” I could now hear the ambulance sirens getting closer. Only an eleven or twelve minute response time, I’m sure no one’s ever died for something like that before.
I couldn’t help but smile. “That’s why I need a baseball bat for my vigorous walks.”
“And if there’s a whole gang? Or someone with a gun? I don’t think a bat is going to help.”
“Yeah, I’m not too afraid of that.”
“Oh, I have superpowers. Wanna see?”
His eyes narrowed. “As long as they’re not dangerous.”
I brought my hands together. This was our signal, how I let myself know to come here and do all of this. Otherwise I would never show up and none of this would happen and… Yeah, Anima was right, trying to figure out people who violate time leads nowhere except migraine-ville. I gripped my ring finger and grit my teeth in anticipation of the pain, then broke my ring finger. That copy started dissolving. “I’m told I’m a Tank Eight, so basically nothing can hurt me.”
“You… were patrolling?” The cop was confused now. “You know that doesn’t actually work, right?”
I shrugged. “Worked for me. Oh, and I also know the law. I interrupted a violent crime using the least amount of force necessary.” Mostly. That kick to the stomach probably didn’t need to happen. “You have my name and address, now, so you can contact me if you have a problem later. Oh, and my identity’s already public and your people already tried their recruitment pitch. Just in case there’s some law requiring you to say something about that.”
I turned and walked the other way out of the alley. The officer didn’t try to stop me. About a block away, I recalled my bat to my hands.
I couldn’t help but be thrilled. As far as a first night debut went, this one was a bit lackluster, but it still worked. We had proof of concept. I could functionally patrol the whole city for hours at a time without wasting the time or energy. And if one of these nights we just so happened to stumble across Kitten… I would be ready for her.