“Are you sure you’re okay?” Chloe had to shout over the sound of wind rushing by. “We can set down and walk if you’re in pain.”
Don’t tempt me. The harness built from my powers put most of my weight on my legs, so my ribs weren’t a problem at all.
“I’m fine!” I yelled, too, but not because of the wind. I yelled because I’ve been afraid of heights since as far back as I can remember, and we were currently about twenty stories in the air. “But if you need to recharge!” Please, please need to recharge.
“I’ve got two or three more miles in me, don’t worry!”
Dammit! “Okay!” I refused to look up at her. Blinding glow notwithstanding, I didn’t want to watch her flying. It was bad enough that I was up here at all, but Chloe was literally flying feet first, and it freaked me out. Not as much as looking down, granted, and that’s why I had my eyes clenched shut.
I kept them that way even as we descended. The moment we touched down, I dropped to my knees, only the pain in my ribs kept me from giving the ground a hug. I finally opened my eyes, to note that Chloe was kind enough to land us in a cluster of trees to spare what little machismo I might have had.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
I forced myself to stand on legs far too wobbly for my tastes. “Y-yeah.” I reshaped my metal and took as deep a breath as my sides would allow. “I may be a little more afraid of heights than I thought. Don’t apologize!” I knew she was about to, so I cut her off. “It’s just a stupid phobia, frankly I just wish I could man up and get over it.”
Chloe dimmed her blue aura enough for me to look at her. “If you’re sure. Hey, there’s no reason we can’t walk back, if you like.”
It sucks that she has to worry about me when there’s so much shit going on in her life. “That’s probably a good idea, anyway. Better if we’re both at full strength for any ambushes.” It was a weak justification at best. I couldn’t picture Heritage going after the boss’s daughter, and no other gang in town was in a position to attempt it. “Speaking of, you got enough juice?”
“Give me a minute.” Her glow returned to the point where I couldn’t look at her. For whatever reason, the ozone smell didn’t come when she was charging, only when she used her powers.
While she was recovering her power, I walked to the edge of the tree cluster. Not far away, over thirty Imbued had gathered up in clusters of three or four at a time. I recognized a few of them, namely those from Heritage. After what happened to Beatrice, and then Chloe, it seemed a prudent use of time to memorize every one of their costumes and powers.
They’d brought Salamander, an Altered with four clawed arms that were tipped in acidic venom. He had some level of superhuman speed and strength, though ‘only’ that of a great cat. He was nude, but his scaled hide kept him from being indecent. A tattoo, or at least I think it was a tattoo, of the Confederate flag sat on his left arm, near the shoulder. I made a mental note that if it came to a fight, I’d be dealing with him.
He was next to his partner and lover, Biohazard, wearing her usual Hazmat suit. In addition to the flag pattern, there were dozens of warning labels patched over her costume. She wasn’t the most powerful Imbued; in fact, Chloe and I probably had her beat, but she was utterly terrifying. She absorbed toxins and got stronger the more she had in her system, capping out at roughly half a ton of strength.
What made her a nightmare was she didn’t purify the the stuff she ingested; it left her body through the usual methods. Her outfit wasn’t for show; it was to keep her from killing her team. She was deadly toxic and potentially radioactive, depending on what was in her system. Given that their boss owned billion dollar industrial companies, it could be anything.
Quash himself was there, along with a woman I didn’t recognize. They were in similar white and gold outfits that resembled military uniforms, and stern white masks. They had the standard Confederate patch, and the Internet told me Quash’s other patches had something to do with White Supremacy mysticism.
I took it to mean the unknown woman was someone important, maybe from a different city. Heritage was just one chapter of a Supremacist group called Endless Storm that had a presence in almost forty cities in nine states. She could have been from anywhere, all I knew was she had unknown powers and hated brown people.
The other clusters were standing far from that group, clearly involved with them. Near as I could tell, they were all Imbued, though not all were in costume. Most were the ‘civilian’ Imbued that, like myself, just wanted a life and a job away from powers. Most seemed to be more successful in that goal than I was.
“I’m ready.” Chloe’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “D-do you think it’s a trap?”
“Can’t see how it would be, not unless they have a crazy powerful illusionist on their side.” Then again, they might. At the same time, if Heritage wanted to attack us, they had all the information they needed to do it while we slept. This was far too elaborate for a trap. “Let’s not put this off.”
I stepped into the field, Chloe right by my side. A few people glanced our way, but most seemed more concerned with talking to each other. We picked a spot clear of others. Through some unspoken signal, we stayed silent.
Not long after we settled in, a skinny teen boy in a yellow hoodie and cheap plastic mask approached me. “So, you guys are new, what’s your story and why are you here?”
A girl not wearing a costume ran up and grabbed the boy by the shoulders. Both of them looked like they were getting too little sleep and sunlight to be considered healthy. She had the same too-skinny figure as he did, and coupled with the skittish way she glanced around reminded me of a frightened hare. “Sorry, my brother has a bad habit of bothering strangers.” That explains the resemblance.
“That’s not true!” He didn’t bother to look at his sister to protest, instead keeping his eyes on me. “I actually have anthropophobia. That’s a disorder characterized by fear of people or society. I never talk to people I don’t know.”
Chloe made a step toward the pair. “But you’re talking to us now.” She kept her voice soft, almost like talking to a small child.
“It’s easy when everyone’s just as weird as me.” Behind him, his sister gasped and stared at me in fear. The kid, also staring at me, kept talking. “Everyone’s acting so serious even though they all look like a renfair had a baby with a BDSM club and let the kid pick his own name when he was seven, then he ran away to the circus in his mother’s- mmm!”
The girl had clasped her hand over the boy’s mouth. “Sorry! He’s not well, his powers mess with his head! Don’t hurt him!”
“We’re not going to hurt anyone.” Chloe brought her hands up. “I know our costumes are a bit edgy, but we’re the good guys. This is Damascus, and for now I’m calling myself Daybreak, but I’m thinking of changing the name.”
The girl visibly relaxed. “Sorry, it’s just, you never know when it comes to Imbued.”
“You’re the glowing light we saw, right? Why not call yourself Arclight? It sounds cool and there’s only three other people using it right now, none of whom live in the United States. A total of seven are using Daybreak.”
I offered an almost-genuine chuckle, trying to make the girl feel more at ease. With the echo caused by my armor, it may not have been the best tactic. “Besides, he has a point. We are all dressed like Doctor Who extras. Umm, if you don’t mind me asking, what kind of power did he get? Or your names, for that matter.”
The girl relaxed. “I’m Jaz, and this is Davin.”
“No!” Davin pulled Jaz’s hand away. “I’m in costume now! My name’s Wiki. I’m telepathically connected to all the knowledge on the Internet!”
“It’s way less powerful than it sounds!” Jaz spoke much louder than she needed to, all the while glancing around at the neighboring clusters. “All he gets is the same information you’d get from a search engine. No passwords or bank account information, unless someone’s dumb enough to just post it online. He can’t even access things that are behind a membership wall. At best, he’s just a faster search engine.”
“I can imagine that’s a problem.” The entire Internet at once? It was a miracle the kid was able to think at all with that much information going through his mind. Even if you discounted the shielded stuff, that was more information per second than a normal person could handle in a lifetime.
“I don’t think you do.” Wiki spoke up, still staring. I was starting to feel a little creeped out, but at least now I knew what was wrong with him. “I only approached you because I can’t find your profiles online and wanted to know more. Plus I bet you’re hot under that armor, and I’m gay this week.”
“And I think I’ll be a girl tomorrow.” What. “Good thing I fit in Jaz’s old clothes.” Jaz cringed, this time looking around in shame instead of fear. “Plus I’m autistic, though I think I that was before getting my powers, I have absolutely no sense of self-censorship or preservation, and the attention span attributed to a squirrel on crack. On the other hand, I am quite self-aware. So, what are you doing after the meeting?”
“That is a lot to take in.” I glanced at all the participants, but no one seemed to know what to say. Wiki kept watching, expecting an answer. “Sorry, but I’m already in a relationship.” Sort of. “So, what brings you here, anyway? I was expecting this to be, well, a more secretive meeting.”
“You don’t know?” Wiki’s smile broadened. “This is an emergency gathering. Back in the old days it was known as a Moot and Imbued would travel for days, then perform blood and sex ri-” Wiki interrupted himself by smacking his head. “Sorry, went off on a tangent. Anyway, someone put out an open call due to recent events, probably to do with Starfall’s murder. I’m here to snoop. Plus if there’s a war coming, I’d like to go on vacation first. I hear Aspen’s nice when it’s not covered in tourists.”
“A war?” Chloe’s voice trembled, she even forgot to use her power to disguise it. “What do you mean?”
Wiki finally stopped staring at me to look at Chloe. “You really are new, aren’t you? The most famous hero in the city gets murdered, and at least nineteen gang members have been brutally slain over the last few days. That sounds to me like a rival gang’s moving in hard and fast. Most of us are here to find out if we need to help out, lay low, or run.”
“I-it’s the only reason we’re here.” Jaz sounded moments from crying. “We just want a peaceful life.”
You and me both. I looked over at where the villains were gathered. It seemed obvious enough that they were the ones who called this gathering, and revenge for Starfall was motive enough for Quash if anything Chloe had told me was true, but that didn’t make it the only reason.
“You know something!” Wiki exclaimed. “You know what this is about, don’t you? I can tell!”
Before I could lie through my teeth, sirens flared. More than a few of the Imbued here jumped, turning their heads toward the sound. The Heritage villains didn’t seem upset, but some of the civilians looked ready to bolt.
I reached over, putting a hand on Chloe’s shoulder. More a reminders that she should keep her mouth shut than for support, but there was a need for support. The police vehicles pulled into the nearby gravel lot. Several officers got out, positioning themselves while the crowd started to panic.
Finally, out of the first vehicle to arrive, Relativistic stepped out of the back. Eldritch followed, along with a third man who just wore a standard cop uniform, but with a mask. “Who’s that?”
Chloe answered, cutting off Wiki before he got started. “That’s Whistleblower. He’s got some kind of danger sense, plus he’s a Truthsayer.”
“If he has that kind of power, why did Starfall…” I shut myself up, but I’d already shoved my foot in my mouth.
“Precogs and luck manipulators are funny like that.” Wiki’s turn to talk, apparently. “They all disrupt each other, like they’re all fighting over the same resources, so if there’s more than one of them in a room, they cancel each other. I’d bet my rig that whoever killed Starfall had some kind of precog power, too. I don’t know if you can kill a precog unless you are a precog, or some kind of Breaker.”
It made as much sense as anything. I squeezed Chloe’s shoulder. If Starfall’s killer was a precog of some sort, then it wasn’t some manipulative scheme that killed her. Chloe didn’t have to blame herself for her mother’s death.
“Ah imagine y’all have been wonderin’ why ah called this gatherin’.” Quash affected the perfect southern gentleman, the voice you’d expect of an actor portraying a Civil War general. I wanted to ask Chloe if it was real or fake, but that was impossible under the circumstances. “Now that we’re all here, let us git started.”