“I hate having to do public events.” I nodded along, this was a common complaint she had. Personally, I was inclined to agree. Near as I could tell, nobody enjoyed them, and the people who pretended to enjoy them hated them the most. “And we both know Senator Vance is going to attend. Then he’s going to try, ever so subtly, to get in my pants again. What part of ‘I’m too busy for a relationship’ is so hard for men to understand?” She picked up her coffee, taking a drink of it through the straw built into her costume.
One of Mari’s quirks, she’d managed a thirty year long career without once letting anyone learn Sapphire’s skin or hair color. It had started as paranoia about her identity being discovered, then became a political statement, and now she was just afraid her fans would be disappointed that she only started doing it to hide her freckles.
“I don’t think he’s really interested in a relationship.” I brought up my hands and started air quotes. “Relationship, perhaps, but not relationship.” I reached down for my donut. Yeah, I know, way to play up the cop stereotype. But in my defense, this donut was special, it called to me in a way that I just could not ignore. I bit into all three types of chocolate, savoring every second. Well worth the extra hour I’d put in at the gym.
“Ugh, it might just be easier to tell him I’m gay.”
Oh, right, as if we need to add any more fuel to those rumors. “Ples dun,” I tried to say with my mouth full.
My headset chirped, and Silf’s voice came on. “Bank robbery in progress, superhumans involved. Corner of Main and Jefferson.”
“We’re on it, give Sym the footage. Breakdown and ETA for backup?” Sapphire was already on her feet, her drink forgotten. She reached for my hand. With one last, longing glimpse at my donut, I gripped her her hand. Moments later, we were in flight, and I was awash in the familiar feel of her power.
That was the nature of my power, the ability to sense other powers. A sixth sense that was far, far more than that. They say normal, unpowered, humans have five senses, but that’s not entirely true. If you think about it, we only truly have three. Hearing was simply an extension and refinement of the sense of touch. Smell a refinement of sense of taste, or perhaps the other way around. Only sight was truly stand alone.
But if, for the sake of analogy, we pretended for a moment that all five human senses were a single sense, then my special sense was the analogous extension and refinement of that sense. A rich, textured environ of energy and pattern, none of which could be easily translated into human experience. I could hear, in a world where others could only touch.
To my sense, powers were composed of recipes. Like the flavors in a gourmet dish or the notes of a song. By changing one ingredient, altering the notes just slightly, you could change the entire experience. It took me years to develop my skill in recognizing all the ‘scents’ and ‘flavors’ and ‘textures’ and ‘tunes’ each power had, but it was well worth it. Sapphire’s predominant signature was what I called Aura, along with Control and Force in the foreground. In the background, Defense, Focus, and Strengthen.
“Approximately five minutes. It appears a fight began during the robbery. My early analysis involves the profile of the CI known as Shadow Boxer. Flagging her for status change to suspected villain.” CI was short for ‘Civilian Imbued’, the ones that didn’t do ‘hero’ or ‘villain’ or ‘government’ work. Her picture appeared on my HUD. She was an obvious Altered, though not particularly extreme. The list on the side suggested she was a short range telekinetic, and that her employment was mainly as a bouncer in high profile clubs.
“The other known quantity is the IH Zach Parker.” When Sapphire tensed, it sent a ripple through her Aura. The ‘tangy’ flavor of suspicion. “Making this the eleventh time he has preemptively arrived at a crime scene.” IH, of course, standing for independent hero.
In addition, we were given a photo, not that we needed it. He, or more importantly his unknown precog backer, was the subject of a lot of speculation. There were only four precogs in the world known to have such incredibly accurate results, and that’s only if we included Echo-Chamber’s collective.
“The two unknowns are an already disabled male suspect, and a summoner that appears to be assisting Zach.”
Sapphire’s Aura dimmed, then flared out again. “It’s Anima, isn’t it?”
“Unknown.” One of these days, I need to sit down with Silf and help her with her dialogue. “The security cameras are far too low resolution, and the summoner in question has only displayed the power to generate mist and forcefields. Certainly within Anima’s capabilities.”
I didn’t need to remind Sapphire that forcefields of some sort were the singularly most common Summoner power. She already knew. She didn’t care. I already braced myself, feeling the upswell in Sapphire’s Aura, Force and Control. Her maximum flight speed was in excess of Mach 1, making her one of the fastest Imbued on the planet. With me in tow, that was reduced to slightly over a hundred for my sake. “We’ll be there in under a minute.” I held on for dear life.
We made it halfway across Arlington in forty two seconds.
I recognized Anima before we touched the ground. If most Imbued were gourmet meals or songs, then Anima was a banquet or symphony. Most Imbued fewer than five total signatures. Sapphire was a rarity at six. Anima had ten. Command, Independence, Force, a different form of Independence that could be called Rebellion, Protect, Serve, Destroy, Life, Destroy again. And laced through it all, binding everything together, was Essence. She gets that from me. “It is her.”
Waves of doubt rolled off Sapphire. “I… I’ll go in alone.” The flavor of her power shifted into our private communication method. Defense went up, an aspect of her power that dimmed my senses, and Focus which sharpened them. The combined effect, I thought of as Lens, allowing me to focus on specific detail without all the distractions in my way.
I returned the favor, allowing her to borrow and amplify her own power, temporarily cannibalizing the power that normally went to her flight and strength to improve her mental focus. This was the nature of our power interaction, our Pairbond, Two made into One.
A light drag of my feet as I walked forward, combined with a slight cross of my foot, reminiscent of drawing a line in the sand, sent the message. You shouldn’t, she won’t want to talk to you.
She straightened slightly, and her hand closed into a fist, the thumb inside the fingers, a sure way to break your thumb if you punched like that. I know it’s a bad idea, but I have to try.
I hesitated for a heartbeat, standing still as she stepped ahead of me, then I started again. I’ll give you a little time, but not long. We have to do our jobs.
Her hand opened, then closed gently. Thank you.
I hid in the entrance, listening in. With Lens active, my hearing was supernatural when I wanted it to be.
“It’s good to see you’re doing well.”
“Do I know you?” Anima’s voice was disguised through one of the many applications of her power, it would have been impossible for a normal person to realize it wasn’t natural. Sapphire’s back stiffened, and I wished I could help. This was her demon to face, I’d only make it worse.
The boy, Zach, stepped between them, looking at Anima. He wasn’t an imposing figure. A skinny teenager in a windbreaker and ski mask, the costume of someone who couldn’t afford a costume. “Of course you do, this is Sapphire. Don’t you watch the news?” He turned toward Sapphire. “And Sapphire, I’d like you to meet, uh, White Lady.”
“Seems awfully experienced for someone I’ve never heard of.” Sapphire was still looking right at a very still Anima. There was no right way through this minefield, and both of them knew it.
That didn’t stop Zach from trying. “She’s, uh, an exchange student. And I’m showing her how much fun Arlington can be.” I had to admit, the kid was good at thinking on his feet. He’d be dangerous with a few years of experience. “Besides, I’ve seen Anima’s costume, White Lady looks nothing like her at all. Although… maybe Anima looks completely different when she takes her costume off.”
Sapphire tensed, and Zach took that as a sign to continue. He had no idea what button he just pressed, but he knew he found a good one. “Who knows, maybe White Lady will be there, too. I’d love to see how they compare to each other.”
He paused for a second, watching Sapphire for clues. “What can I say, I have a thing for older women. Speaking of which, what are you up to, later?”
Sapphire’s focus shifted, wavered for a moment before becoming hostile. She’d given up on talking to Anima, and was now going into authoritarian mode. Pissed authoritarian mode. “Oh, right, Mister Parker. I’ve been meaning to talk to you, too. You have a remarkable talent for showing up in places just in time to save the day. One might suspect you have an Esper helping you. I wonder who.”
Zach tensed just for a moment, but bounced back quick. Not quickly enough to hide the tell, however. “I just get lucky.”
Sapphire seemed nonplussed. “Lucky?”
“Yup. That’s what I do every night. Go out and get lucky.” Is he trying to piss her off? Oh, wait, stupid question, of course he’s trying to piss her off. He’s protecting Anima by drawing Sapphire’s attention on himself. And doing a remarkable job of it.
Sapphire took a slow breath, then her arm shifted. I knew from body language she was pointing at the badge built in to her costume. “Do you have any idea what this is?”
Zach squinted and leaned forward. “Umm, it’s pretty small, but… a boob?”
Oh. My. God. Anima’s signatures dimmed. She was just as shocked as I was.
“I meant the badge.” Sapphire’s power climbed, almost to the point of dropping Lens in favor of her more offensive ability. “Do you know what having a badge means?”
“That you get to beat up brown people?”
Okay, that’s enough of this. I’d never seen anyone get to Mari this badly before, in or out of uniform. No one else had ever been brave enough to try. Zach had no idea what he was saying, what old wounds he was prodding. All he knew was that it was working. I opened the door and walked in. Now that I was inside, I could get a better feel for the others.
Shadow Boxer was about what I’d expect. Force, Health, Health, Amplify and Strength. Probably a regenerator, which caused the physical side effects as her body rapidly grew muscle. Force without Control, a telekinetic that unleashed powerful attacks. Her partner had Life, Dominion, Voice and Idea. Holy fuck he has mind control.
“Okay, the initial sweep shows there’s no other potential suspects. How’s the interview going with the heroes?”
“Less than cooperative, we’ve barely begun.”
“Here’s the rundown,” Zach cut in. “I’m at the bank getting lucky like I do all the time when patrolling. I’m sure it’s all over my police file or threat index. I make you guys look bad too often for you to not have one.”
What the hell has Anima been telling this kid?
“So I call up White Lady and have her use her power to protect the civilians so I can kick villain ass. Her power’s great like that. Anyway, the Tron LARPer has mind control that I just happen to be immune to. When he speaks, other people believe what he’s saying is true. And it doesn’t wear off when he’s knocked out.”
That fit the details my power gave me, but I couldn’t let them know I already knew. “Is it part of his equipment?”
Zach shook his head. “Nope, that shit’s all cheap Halloween costume. He’s a regular mind controller, not a Gadgeteer. He mind whammied the civilians pretty hard before I could break free of his power. They don’t seem to want to leave. Speaking of leaving, White Lady wasn’t here for any of it, and she doesn’t like being around a lot of strangers. Can she go now?”
Kid, if you only knew. “I see no reason to keep her somewhere she doesn’t want to be.” Nor could we if we tried.
“Cool.” He turned back toward Anima, and I took the opportunity to really look with my power. Okay, so he is a teleporter, not some weird time manipulator or something. Creation. Protection. Those were the two major ones. Analysis, Optimize, Drain, Restor– no, there wasn’t Restoration. There was the ghost of Restoration, but it had been replaced by Analysis, which was now doing a version of the same duty. He was once a regenerator, probably someone who could extend regeneration to others. He picked up Analysis recently.
I now knew Com’s suspicions were correct. He surged in his fight with Kitten, that’s where he collected Analysis from, an offspring her bioscan power. Or, that was my guess, I’d never actually seen Kitten in person, but it made sense. That’s why it was so strong that it was capable of memorizing every last molecule in his body and then copy and restore them back into place somewhere else.
Anima had quickly made her way out the back while I was getting my look at Zach’s power combination. We’d be updating Zach’s ratings later. Possibly much later, since there was little doubt Anima would use Sapphire’s access codes to read up on any changes we made.
“Any other details you want to offer?” Sapphire asked, sounding like she was dreading whatever he might say next. I glanced over at her, looking down briefly, a nod done with the eyes. I got all the information we’re going to get.
“Well, now that you ask,” he waited a beat. “Nope, that’s pretty much it. Tell Shadow Boxer I’m sorry I was such a dick. To her.” By extension, he wasn’t sorry at all for being a dick to Sapphire. “But I must go. My people need me!”
He moved toward the door, where there was already a news van. How did the reporters get here before the rest of the cops?
I didn’t bother stopping him. Imbued had to be treated with kid gloves, never know what might set them off. And sometimes, you knew exactly how to set them off. I waited until he was past us, before I twisted the knife. “She loved you.”
“What.” It wasn’t a question, it wasn’t a demand, it wasn’t even disbelief. It was pain and heartbreak turned into sound. I didn’t bother turning around, and through Lens I knew he didn’t, either. We would have this conversation backs turned.
Sapphire did turn. I didn’t need our link to know her question. What do you think you’re doing?
“The woman Kitten took away from you. She loved you.” I waited the seconds until he was almost ready to speak, to call me a liar. “When someone kills an Imbued, their powers jump to someone else. It’s always the person they care about most, the one they trust and believe in more than any other in this world. What truer form of love can there be?”
His breathing was labored, as he tried to get control of his emotions. What are you doing? Sapphire signaled again.
He hurt you, Marisela, I’m returning the favor. I continued my monologue. “If you don’t believe me, ask Anima or your Esper friend. It’s unofficially known as the Mark of Cain. The reason even most of the truly heinous villains don’t kill other Imbued, even if they’re more than happy to kill normal people. Not only does it create a new enemy, the new enemy’s powers are evolved to make them even better for fighting the murderer. Kitten killed her, and because she loved you, you got the power to continue her battle.”
Sapphire shifted, pressing her thumb into her hand in a way reminiscent of a mouth, frowning. You can’t know you’re right.
I didn’t move at all, it was true. However. I could be right. But that’s not important. What’s important is he believes me.
There was a snap of energy as his power activated. Analysis took the most recent variant, Optimized it, and Created a new copy. Then Drained the original body into whatever reserve powers drew from. Protection didn’t trigger. Which didn’t make sense; a primary signature always activated when the main function of the power was activated. Which implied that the power to heal himself was not his primary ability. He walked out the front door.
Sapphire tensed, tilting her head to Zach’s fleeing figure. You know you just ruined any hope of stopping him from going after Kitten.
I nodded. If she saw anything deeper than the obvious meaning, it wasn’t intentional on my part. “Come on, we have people to help.” We can’t stop Kitten, we’re not willing to risk the consequences. Letting him do it for us is best for everyone.
“Help the tellers first. They seem to have been harder hit by the mind controller. I’ll secure the villains.” You’re going to have a lot more people to take care of when this plays itself out.
“Right.” I opened the door to get to the tellers, who had loaded all the money into a bag and were standing around staring at it, as if wondering what to do next. That guy’s power was all over them, melded right into their brains. We’d add Maker Two to his threat ranking when we had the chance, it might take months for nature to undo the changes he’d caused in their brains. Weeks with a decent therapist.
I was better than that. A moment of thought later, and I altered the flow of energy, temporarily borrowing his Dominion and Voice, at the cost of my senses. He couldn’t use them, he was unconscious. “It’s okay, you don’t have to do what he said anymore.” Pain lanced through my head as his power clashed against my mind. Even removing his own influence costs that much power? No wonder he broke when trying to stop Zach. It’s a wonder he’s still alive.
They shook their heads, breaking free of the power. I took a slow breath, making certain I wouldn’t use the power accidentally. “There will be officers here shortly to take your statements, I need to go check on the other hostages.” They mumbled agreements, even with the power removed they were rather suggestible. I’d remember to warn the cops to tread lightly while talking to them.