It was late by the time we were done talking shop with Mike, and I was exhausted. My chest and throat burned from the experience, each heartbeat heralded another stabbing sensation in my chest. I took a break while letting the car warm up before the vaporizer kicked on, and with it sweet relief.
“You coulda told me he moved like a ten year old on crack.” I breathed in the warmed and humidified air recipe, which did wonders for my lungs and relieved much of the pain. As a creature comfort, it was my favorite invention, with the only flaw being a lack of caffeine delivery. “Never knew a guy that big could bounce around so much. I thought I was going to have a heart attack for him.”
“He is something else, that’s for certain.” Glen’s rumble echoed through the car, tripping off half a dozen of my vehicle’s sensors.
Pity I’m going straight, the readouts from him could build the ultimate utility device for a good thief. I bet I could even get the flight system working now. I’d have to steal about a hundred grand to buy the materials, and something told me that wouldn’t go over too well with my new friends. Maybe they’d let it slide if I only stole it off the gangs? Anima struck me as the type who would disapprove on principle alone, but the others were pragmatists and might convince her that it’s ultimately for the greater good.
“Did he bother you that much?”
Huh? “Oh, no.” I dropped that line of speculation for the time being. “I just got to thinking about building a flight system for my armor, and Fugued out. It’s a Tech thing, I’m sure Mike’s had moments like that, too.”
“Well, yeah, but in his case he gets even more manic, complete with Doctor Frankenstein grade laughter. I thought he was just fucking with people when he did that.”
Of course he does. “Now that I think about it, I may be the exception rather than the rule.” I didn’t have a lot of experience with other Techs; we were a rarity to begin with, and we were less likely to do crime than most of the other powersets. “Loud and crazy is probably the norm. At the very least, a large minority.”
The soft rumble of Glen’s imitated laughter filled my car. The reverberations and subtle distortions where physics passed through Glen’s ‘body’ and decided to play chess instead of checkers remained as fascinating as ever. “Let’s not tell Mike you just called him normal. He’d take it as an insult.”
Why am I not surprised? “I don’t think he has to worry about that. At worst, he’s in the larger half of a one in one hundred thousand minority. And his power’s good enough to top twentieth percentile.” Granted, the way powers worked, top twentieth was still only a two or three on the ranking system. “Car, map to the playhouse.”
My vehicle’s computer kicked on, registering a million different factors including traffic averages, weather, and exactly when each and every traffic light would turn red. The advantage of computer timed traffic systems was predictable traffic systems. If everyone was smart as me, there’d be no traffic jams.
“Still, from the lack of enthusiasm, I suppose you won’t be visiting again any time soon?”
No sense in lying. “Probably not. He’s a nice enough guy.” Too nice, perhaps that’s the problem. I was self aware enough to admit I liked the bad boy archetypes. “But with a twenty year age gap, there was little chance we’d have much in common, besides the whole ‘gay’ thing.” It didn’t help that I broke the Tech stereotype by not being a gamer geek of one description or another. “And our Methodologies aren’t compatible with one another, which was my whole reason for the meeting.”
“Fair enough. Mike’s a good guy, but not everyone’s cup of tea. I know he already thanked you for it, but I’ll thank you again for letting him scan some of your equipment. He’s been trying to replicate Gadgets for a while now, and every little bit helps.”
“I didn’t want to tell him, but it’s impossible.” A pity, but too much to hope for in the first place. “Not without a Surge or two, at any rate. Sure, some of us can work with others’ Tech if it’s from a Methodology similar to our own. More can work with other Techs to produce hybrid devices, like any other Power Interaction. But the ability to copy or otherwise freely work with others’ Tech is a top tier Breaker ability. Those rare few Techs are at Anima and Kitten’s power levels. You either have that power, or you don’t. Mike doesn’t. Same story with his dream of some day creating living things. It’s outside of his reach.” People at that level worked for the governments who owned nuclear weapons, not at some custom metalworks shop, no matter how high end.
“I see…” Glen went quiet, though I could still hear the distortions he left in the sound around him. I felt bad, but I was never one for sugar-coating the truth.
I began driving my way to the Playhouse in relative silence. To say it was uncomfortable was an understatement at best, and eventually I broke. Dammit. “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. I know he’s your friend and all.”
“It’s not your fault.” Again, we rode in silence for several more minutes. “Mike’s… there’s just no break for Imbued, is there? Any of us.”
I shrugged, having no answers to offer.
“Just do me a favor, promise not to tell anyone what you suspect about Mike’s powers. I don’t want Zach or Laura or anyone to accidentally spill the beans, and I don’t want Mike to hear it.”
“Not a word from my mouth.” Perhaps the easiest promise I ever made. “But… maybe I don’t know Mike all that well, but I think he already knows. Speaking as one Tech about another.”
Nothing else important was said during the ride, and I prefered it that way. Several turns through side streets to avoid traffic, and traffic lights, saw us in the parking lot of the Playhouse. I spotted Laura’s car, as well as the alarm system identifying the unnatural ice formations that were now associated with both Cassandra and Kitten. As I feared, we’re the last ones to arrive.
“Go on ahead, let the thunderstorm know we’ve arrived. I’ll be along as fast as my fleshy limitations allow. And while we’re on the subject, why does Mike call her that?” The name fit Laura well enough, but I was under the impression the two had never met.
“That is a long story.” I noted how brilliant his control of sound was, emulating wistful happiness better than most people with lungs and lips could. More telling was the fact that he felt the need to express the emotion with such fidelity. “Remind me to tell it another day.”
“Will do.” I waited for the peculiar echo that was Glen’s presence to fade. A couple deep, painful breaths later I pulled my scarf over my face and stepped out into the cold. Even through the thick cloth, moisturized with my breath, the air was unforgiving. By the time I made across the parking lot, my lungs were on fire again.
I opened the door while using it to help me stand. Fuck, it’s worse than I thought. You couldn’t leave me with just the mental scars, could you? Had to make every part of my life miserable. I shouldn’t have complained too much; I was dead, clinical and actual, and by that standard every breath I now took was stolen time, no matter how much pain they brought with them.
Steeling myself, I walked into the building standing tall, or as tall as I could hope for. Seeing as I was still an inch or so shorter than any of the three women that were part of our circle, that didn’t account for much. The warmth inside the building helped alleviate the pain, but not entirely. I should have worn my chest-piece, if only for the walk assist mode. I stopped at the staircase, looking up at the long looping curve.
Wonder if they’ll be suspicious if I ask for the meeting to be held downstairs next time? I took a moment to breathe, then forced myself to move. I didn’t try to run, not up stairs, but I took them two at a time while ignoring the pain building throughout my chest. My muscles were still in good shape, with the caveat that I was never what one would call an athlete; it was the lungs, and perhaps the heart, that were the problem.
Once I made it to the top, I took a deep breath. “Hey guys, what’d I miss?” Question asked, I stopped talking and hoped they would spend an hour chatting so I could recover from what I just put myself through.
Zach stood in such a way that allowed his back to face everyone else when I was there. I wasn’t quite a lip reader, but he seemed to mouth ‘Help me’ before speaking.
“Nothing much. We were just catching up on old times, and discussing future battle plans.” He stepped somewhat sideways so that he could face everyone again. “Long story short, Cassandra’s on the team by virtue of majority vote. Sorry you weren’t here for it, but even if you vote no, it’d still go through.” He paused for a moment, as if to wait for me to say something. Best I could do was offer a shrug. “From now on, she goes into the burning buildings instead of me. But I’m still our point man in the whole face-kicked-in-by-assholes department.”
Cassandra looked at Zach, then at me. “My power’s good on the defensive. I’m a solid Tank, but offensively my options are either ‘punch about as hard as that one dude on acid who Zach fought’ and ‘that scene from Terminator Two with the liquid nitrogen’.”
Zach didn’t bother looking at Cassandra, instead keeping his eyes trained on Me, Laura or Anima depending upon the second in question. “Yeah, I’m assuming the vote to kill everyone who gets in our way is unanimously rejected. Plus, we know I can shake mind control if one of those show up again. Lightbringer’s hiring outside help, and I bet Lanza’s doin’ the same. Kinda has to if he wants to win this. Seem like mind control would be real popular in a gang war.”
“Wouldn’t rule it out,” I said. In truth, I wasn’t worried about mind controllers. To start with, they were the most antisocial of all Imbued, serial killers notwithstanding. Mind controllers being control freaks was a popular stereotype for a reason. Follow that up with the fact that any mind controller you work with could just as easily control you as your enemies, and one could see why even the worst sorts of criminals avoided working with them.
“Right, so the game remains the same,” Laura said. “Main difference is we have one more player.” Judging by her tone, Laura voted for Cassandra joining the team reluctantly at best.
Or perhaps she was against it, but the elusive Oracle got a vote. In which case even if Glen backed Laura, they’d be two to three and all I could do would be to tie the vote. I appreciated being spared that awkwardness.
Zach seemed to ignore Laura’s displeasure, and kept his eyes trained on me. “Yeah, so let’s hear it for computer smarts that put the rest of us to shame.”
It seemed my break had ended.”Where do I begin.” I slipped my backpack off and pulled my laptop out. “I’ve been sorting through the data we got. It’s a long story.”
Zach smiled his goofy grin. “Many Bothans died to bring us this information. Twenty six of them, to be exact.” In the back, Cassandra giggled at his stupid joke. Zach’s face set a new land speed record for fastest change from smile to frown ever recorded. “Half were from hypothermia.”
Ouch. I felt that one. Cassandra’s face remained passive, showing no sign of distress, but I knew better. I took the uncomfortable silence as an opportunity to recover as best I could before I started. “Lanza’s got himself a girlfriend.”
“Is this a ‘save the chick from her asshole boyfriend’ scenario, or is it a ‘Laura gets to beat a bitch because her idiot brother’s scared to hit a girl’ scenario?” It goes without saying that it was Laura making the comment; nobody else here would have dared.
“A ‘go directly to jail, you’ll wish all you lost is two hundred dollars’ scenario,” I said. “She’s an emergency dispatcher. All the cop intel, without the cop background checks. And if you’re bilingual, they won’t even bother checking your citizenship.”
“Son of a flaming cuntwaffle.” This time, it was Zach’s exclamation. He, unlike his sister, had the good taste to look like he regretted the outburst, or at least who he had the outburst in front of. “That’s how the shitstain keeps avoiding us. He’s cheating!”
I smirked at him. “I don’t think we can call people out for that one. We’re doing ninety percent of our damage because we have a buddy who can see the future. Also…” I tapped the top of my laptop. “What I’m doin’ ain’t exactly legal. Granted, legality doesn’t stop the government, but that’s why they’ll come down harder on us. They hate competition.”
“Can we bust her?” Glen asked. “I mean, maybe find some other way to tell the cops what she’s up to?”
“One that doesn’t send us to jail for the six or more felonies you’re now accomplices to?” I gave what I hoped was an apologetic look at Anima and Cassandra; the others didn’t care how many laws they were violating. “I’m open to suggestions, but my money’s on no. Also: I’m not certain which dispatcher is the mole.”
“New rule.” Zach said. “We’re now assigning a code orange. It’s like a code red, but we can’t call the cops because the cops will call the crooks. So any of those pop up, and we’ll know that we send out the crew and stomp these assholes into mudholes. You can sneak a fake text message into one of their cell phones, right? Something-something-dispatcher-warned us. Enough that they’ll at least know to look for a leak.”
Huh. “That’s… not a bad idea.” There were flaws in the base concept, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome. “Technically searching the phone requires a warrant, but those get rubber stamped without a second thought. Just make up some crap about them talking about a crime on the phone when you got there.” Of course, any half competent criminal used a data cleansing program to protect themselves, but that wouldn’t impact my plan in the slightest.
Zach chuckled and leaned back, relaxed in the knowledge that his scheme was a good one. “So you’re telling me to the police? Is it Tuesday already?”
Anima shrank back; now that I thought about it, she hadn’t said a thing since I got here. I wanted to speak up, but ultimately she and I came from two different worlds. Not the least of which being that she could get all her needs and wants met by simple virtue of her power, while I was a third rate crook playing at some brand of antihero.
There wasn’t much I could do about her, however, so I opted to remind her we were playing a bigger game than mere privacy violations could contend with. “While we’re on the subject, it looks like a Black Supremacist group from Baltimore is trying to take some of the Northeast corner. Ain’t got confirmation, but with one major power fractured and the other missing two of its heaviest hitters, we’re ripe for someone to fill the power vacuum.”
Zach sighed. “White power gang, Hispanic power gang, now Black power gang… not that it matters, but out of curiosity, are there any gangs that aren’t racist as fuck?”
“You mean ones big enough that they can afford to be picky?” Laura decided she would answer that question. “Off the top of my head, I’d say some of the biker gangs. But one-percenters are proud of following their own rules. Fuck normal society, fuck gang society, often times it’s even fuck other biker gang societies. So it all depends on which gang you’re talking about, and even then it’ll change from chapter to chapter. But as long as you mind your business, they’ll treat you fine. Just stay away from the crazy fucks like the Wild Hunt.”
“Wild Hunt?” Cassandra interrupted, herself speaking for the first time since I got here.
“Never watched a documentary on bike gangs?” Laura asked. “They’re one part biker gang, and three parts violent cult that acts like it’s the dark ages and they’re a viking raiding party. Don’t worry, you’ll never see them around here. They run in the deserts.”
I felt like Laura’s description didn’t quite do them justice. “Let’s just say that if they met Kitten, they would bring her home with them and declare her a war chief. Yes, their war chiefs live up to the term. And with that pleasant thought in mind, we can feel relieved that our city is fresh out of complete monsters. Only mostly monsters.”
Zach’s phone started playing… Mars, the Bringer of War? I was impressed; Zach didn’t strike me as the type who appreciated the classics. I would have expected something more contemporary, such as the Imperial March. Zach flipped through. “So… guys… remember how we just invented a new code orange, well Oracle just called one in.”
Already? How fucking powerful is this Oracle? Precogs at that level were rare to the point of unheard of. Oracle had no business playing Cops and Robbers, and should instead have been playing Civilizations and Regime Changes.
“What time?” Laura rushed to Zach’s side, and based on the subtle tone, Glen was right there on top of her. It didn’t take Anima long to follow behind, though she walked instead of ran.
“Well, there’s a couple minor hits along the way, but the big fish is at one in the morning.” Zach let the others crowd in to look at the tiny phone screen. “Seems to be by that health food store near the river. Not exactly a crime hotspot, but I’m not our precog.”
“Maybe it’s being used for money laundering? Or it’s just a super-powered robbery?” Anima added to their speculation. “If we’re doing the damage we think we are, they need the money, right?
I wondered how their precog was good enough to give a time and a place to within minutes and meters, yet couldn’t let us know what the actual threat was. I dismissed it as another of those arbitrary rules that powers seemed to follow, ones which prevented Mike from replicating life, or normal people from replicating Tech.
Meanwhile, Cassandra walked up next to me, then turned to look at Zach and the others. “So, you, too?”
I looked at her eyes, which were trained on Zach. It took me a moment to figure out what she meant. Now my chest hurt for an entirely different reason.
Dammit. Well, no point in hiding it from a Truthsayer. “Yeah, me too.” I wouldn’t say admitting it made me feel better, but it did make me feel less bad. If that made any sense.
You should be, you brought it up. “Don’t be. I already know it’s never gonna happen.”
“Add that to the things we have in common, then.” She went silent for a moment. “If it makes you feel any better, I think your odds are better than mine at this point.”