“Our battle plan is go home and get some sleep,” Daryl said. “We’ve done more than enough. Too much, really.”
“So after all the gangs got kicked square in the nuts, our plan is to do nothing?” Zach looked like he was about to walk out to start his own fight. I’d have joined him if he did, after having promised to support him in the field, even being a little excited about it, only to have one of our own reject the whole idea outright.
“Sounds like my kinda plan!” Laura giggled. “I’m thinkin’ vacation somewhere not a frigid hellhole for a week, who’s with me?”
“I’m with Zach on this one,” Cassandra said. Zach flinched a little when she supported him, and if I noticed it then she must have. Her reaction was, as always, to show no reaction at all. “You don’t need to be Sun Tzu to know that the best time to hit an enemy is when they’re hurt.”
“And the worst time is when their only way out is through you!” Daryl stopped for a slow breath. “Look, it’d be different if we were cops, but we’re not. We don’t have cop funding or cop badges or cop backup. You don’t back a wounded animal into a corner and expect to get out without them fighting back. They’re desperate, they’re going to escalate, and they’ll be looking for blood. What better way to repair their rep than to beat the girl who kicked the ass of the guy who kicked their asses?”
What? My heart hammered in my chest, not out of concern for myself, but for Mrs. Battle and the whole of the Playhouse. Perhaps a little concern for anyone stupid enough to go after me, my power being what it was. “Are you saying they’ll try to kill me?”
Daryl looked at me for a moment. “Not unless we make them believe they have to. Killing celebrities, even minor ones, is too much heat. Then there’s the Hecatomb Protocols.”
“The what?” Zach asked. Sometimes I forgot how new he was to the supers subculture, including the stupid side of it.
I rolled my eyes. “Supposedly, it’s a-”
Zach’s phone started playing the Terminator theme as a ring tone. “Sorry. That’s our job for the night.” He pulled it out of his pocket and open in a single fluid motion. “Huh. So I got an hour to make it to Seventh and Northwest, low alert. I bet it’s some kid snatching a purse or something. And that’s it.” The phone returned to his pocket as easily as it came out. “Sorry, you were saying something about hexadomes?”
“Hecatomb. Some top-secret government black-ops group who sends out agents to hunt down people who kill powerful Imbued. Depending on who’s telling the story, they either assassinate them, capture and execute them legally, or hand them over to whomever inherits the victims’ powers. Human sacrifice as a peace offering or a bribe. But it’s just a conspiracy theory, like those stories about Russian moon bases. It’s not actually true.”
“Minor correction: it’s one of the FBI’s shadow-branches, not an agency,” Daryl said. “And there is no organization called ‘Hecatomb’, nor will ‘Hecatomb Protocol’ be spoken or written by any agent who wants to keep his job. Names have power, those in charge have known that since the dark ages. So when they want to keep something truly secret, they never, ever, name it. Safer that way. We call it the Hecatomb Protocol on the off chance the name sticks, and opens it up for Espers.”
Half of what Daryl said was absurd, while the other half was common knowledge, as I’d come to expect of conspiracy theories. Though if you were trying to reveal a conspiracy, tricking the conspirators into giving their project a name was as good a plan as any.
“Well, why are they waiting around with their thumbs up their asses instead of dangling Crucible off a bridge as neo-Kitten bait?” Laura said, creating what was easily the most awkward silence in the history of the universe. “What? Come on, you were all thinkin’ the same damn thing!”
Daryl cleared his throat. “Well, Laura’s lack of tact aside. They can’t be certain of who out of a dozen people gets ‘credit’ for the mark, and Cassandra isn’t acting like the type who needs a human sacrifice to be happy. I promise they’re watching us all like hawks, however. Which is just another reason to back off and allow the rest of this mess to play out without interference. It’ll be thugs killing thugs out there for the time being.”
I studied Zach’s face. He doesn’t like to be told he’s useless. I suppose I can relate, even if my problem is more akin to the opposite. “Don’t forget we still have a precog helping us.” A precog that’s half you. “Which means we’ll know if anything’s too dangerous before it happens.”
My heart warmed when he smiled. “Yeah, we do! Who needs caution when you can see the future?” I envied how happy he was making a difference. Considering that his mother kicked him out of house yesterday, which neither of us seemed to want to bring up, I was sure he needed something to look forward to.
“I’d feel way more comfortable if I knew how Oracle’s power worked,” Daryl said. “But that’s beside the point. Did you know there’s a phrase people who use precogs too much always use? It’s called ‘We surrender’. Or did you forget how last night almost went?”
“Oh, don’t be such a stick in the mud.” Laura leaned back, draping herself over the less than comfortable arms of three separate seats. “I was the one who got squished like a chew toy, and I’m fine now. Hehe, squeak squeak.”
“Laura brings up a good point,” Zach said.
While I was busy processing what he just said, Cassandra interrupted him. “What? No, you can’t give up now!”
Zach tensed. “Who’s giving up?” He stepped toward her, while the rest of us caught on to what he meant. A nagging, soft pain in my chest bloomed when I realized that I didn’t realize until after his ex. “I did everything I set out to do, right? I already won, I can stop playing.”
Cassie stayed silent for a moment, then the temperature in the room started to drop. “That doesn’t make sense. What about all the people you can help?”
“Great, now you’ve got me agreeing with her,” Laura muttered. “Seriously, did you do all this just to upstage my teen rebellion phase?”
I didn’t get it either, but if this was what Zach wanted, then I’d support him. “Hey, we’re going to have downtime anyway, right?” I looked around at the others. “I still have a normal job, and we’re getting ready to do another play.” Midsummer Night’s Dream had been a yearly event for longer than I’d worked here. I kept forgetting to ask Mrs. Battle why they went with a play with ‘summer’ in the name as the first showing during spring.
“Well, I never said we wouldn’t keep using Oracle to save innocent people, but this gang bullshit?” Zach shrugged his shoulders. “I’m done trading punches with supervillains. Let them kill each other for all I care, I’m on vacation.”
What. Since when did Zach… I don’t even know what he’s doing. I stepped in to support Zach; regardless of his reasons, he was my boyfriend. More than that, he was my friend.
“I think all of us could use a break.” Especially Laura, she could have died out there if Revenant didn’t have his weird honor code… Oh.
I fumbled for the note I stored in my clothes beneath my armor. For other people, that might have been a problem, but my armor softened so that it offered up about as much resistance as a plastic grocery bag. The suction sensation around my wrist when I clasped the paper in my pocket was the extent of the difficulty.
“Hey, Daryl, can you read this?” I pulled my hand out of my pocket and armor, while walking over to him. “Revenant left this note, said you should help me with something. The spelling is terrible, maybe it’s some kind of code?”
“Sure, let’s see.” Daryl took the note from my hand, then unfolded it with greater care than the crumpled paper had been given by anyone before. “Ugh, this is why I’m a professional thief instead of a teacher. It’s not a code, just really bad spelling. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s dyslexic.”
Dislexia? I hadn’t considered that angle, but people with disabilities were the majority amongst Imbued. Powerlessness, isolation, and self-loathing were what drove people to embrace that Thing that granted us our abilities in the first place. If Revenant was dyslexic, it might explain why his power put so much emphasis on growing stronger and smarter as the conflict continued.
He might have gotten his power young, perhaps even younger than I was. The most powerful of us usually manifested early. Theories on why abounded, but my experience was that there were limits to how far an adult would allow themselves to go. Children, who couldn’t comprehend the gravity of the situation, were willing to sacrifice everything to It.
“Holy shit!” Laura’s shout snapped me out of my introspection. “That’s it, we’re goin’ to Vegas!”
What did I miss? I glanced around at the others, none of whom seemed to realize I had no idea what happened.
“I’m sure you’re planning to turn it down, but lemme just stop you for a minute,” Zach said. “The money’s already there. If you don’t take it, that means the criminals get to keep it. If you don’t want it, you can always give it to charity.”
What. “I’m sorry, I kinda spaced there. What’s this about money?”
“Fuck!” Laura slapped her hand off her thigh, then leaned back and laughed like a madwoman. I wondered what the crew who stayed late to get some extra practice in thought of the display.
“Uh, the ‘grand prize’ Revenant mentions in his note.” Daryl folded the paper up and offered it back to me. “He does these exhibition fights once or twice a month where he’ll take on everyone who enters, one at a time. It starts at one penny, and for every minute you stay in the ring, you add a zero to the end. If you can last the whole eight minutes or somehow beat Revenant before the match is over, you get the full million dollar prize.”
Holy shit! “What.”
“Spend some of it on a hearing aid!”
Thanks, Laura. I would have sighed, if my brain wasn’t preoccupied with other concerns. “I heard you the second time.” Forget everything else, how was I supposed to process this? “How can he throw away a million dollars at a time like that? Where’s the money come from?”
“For starters, he doesn’t throw it away.” Daryl fiddled with his phone for a few seconds. “His website says most tourneys end with him paying out less than a hundred bucks. I believe it. Zach or Cassie could are in the top ten percent, far as rankings go, and he beat both of them in under five minutes. Including the stalling.”
“And I bet he got, like, ten mil easy from all those safehouses he smashed,” Zach muttered. “What asshole said crime doesn’t pay? Because he’s a damn, dirty liar.”
“Nah, they’re in war mode right now,” Daryl said. “Money’s tied up in drugs, guns and paying soldiers and mercs. Doubt he found more than what he gave Laura. Revenant pays the prize money from illegal gambling and sadists who pay to watch the beatdowns that only underground matches can provide. Won’t take long for him to make his money back.”
That’s not so bad. Gambling and fights weren’t my idea of good company, but it wasn’t made from the suffering of innocent people. I could go to sleep with a good conscience. I only had one more question to ask. “How do I collect?”
The only person who didn’t look shocked was Cassie.
“Woo! Attagirl! Next time you’re takin’ me shopping!” Correction: Laura and Cassie did not look shocked. Glen as well. So less than half the people here looked shocked.
“What?” I looked around at them. “Zach’s right, I’ll be able to put it to better use than a criminal.” In fact, I already knew the first thing I was going to do.
Daryl poked at his on phone some more. “There’s no instructions. I guess they just hand over the money to the winners. But they list an email here. I’ll forward it to you, and you can send them a message. I recommend a burner account, done from a public library.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” The paranoia was meaningless; I was far too dangerous for law enforcement to allow my identity to remain secret. Even if the caseworkers and Sapphire didn’t give my name and power description straight to the federal registry, a precog would have been pointed in my direction sooner or later. Perhaps Daryl was able to stay below the radar, but the best I do was staying hidden from the civilian world.
“Can we call the meeting here? I’ve got some things to take care of.” I tried to be polite, but I was in a daze from what I’d learned.
Laura giggled to herself. “Does that mean you’re buying us all gifts? Dibs on a new car!”
“Yeah, sure,” Zach said. “You guys may as well call it an early night. Even the crooks don’t wanna be out in the cold. Meet up again on Thursday, usual time?”
Two days from now? Bad choice. “We’ll have to meet late. There’s going to be a dress rehearsal that night. Which means you’ve gotta be here to do your job.”
“Superheroes working the special effects at a theater, that’s not somethin’ you see a lot of in the comics.” Zach stretched his arms over his head. “Aight, let’s take the week off, unless Oracle has something big.”
“Yeah, we’ll figure something out.” I went for the stairs right away, excited to have a chance to make my dream a reality.
Zach caught up to me moments after I started climbing down. “Hey, so, what’s with the rush? Is something wrong?”
I turned to face him, smiling behind my armor. Better than okay. “No, nothing’s wrong. I’ve just got something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I finally can. How about you? Care to explain why you’re okay with stopping our attacks on the gangs.” Right after I volunteered to give more support to the team, no less. I know Laura’s part of it, but I don’t think it’s the whole story.
Zach’s look of concern for me changed in that subtle way that suggested he had something else to worry about. “Uh, it’s a long story. How about if I come back tonight after I do my little rescue mission?” He moved in a little, close enough that I could imagine I felt him through the armor.
Oh. That’s what he means. I both tingled and hurt at the thought. “Sure, see you then. But only to talk, I’m still tired from before.”
“Sure, that’s fine.” As hard as Zach was to figure out, he had no talent for hiding disappointment. He leaned in and gave my helmet a kiss. “See you soon.” He ran down the steps three at a time, while I walked behind.
I went straight to Mrs. Battle’s office, where she was working on her paperwork for the play. By now, she was done with making sure the advertisement was out in the local papers, and now it was a matter of juggling costs until the ticket sales let her recover the costs, with perhaps a small amount of profit on top. She looked up the moment I opened the door.
“Can I talk to you for a minute?”
“Of course!” She set aside her pen and papers, then took off her reading glasses. “What’s wrong? Did you and Zach have a fight?”
Why does everyone jump to the conclusion that something’s wrong? I dunno, Beth, maybe because nothing good ever happens to you, so people are conditioned to assume the worst?
“No. Zach and I are fine. But I was… well…” I pulled up a seat so at least I wouldn’t have to stumble over my feet while I stumbling over my words. “I came into a bit of money recently, and I was thinking that I could buy the Playhouse from you.”
Convincing Mrs. Battle to accept charity was beyond my power, but buying it from her might be more pallatable.
She smiled at me. “Oh, dear, you don’t have to do that.”
“No, but I want to.” I had expected resistance, but how to overcome said resistance was part of the plan I was still working on. “It doesn’t have to be right away, but I’d like the option open, in case you change your mind later.”
She chuckled, then reached over and touched the back of my hand. “I appreciate the sentiment, but you do not have to buy the Playhouse. I already have you listed in my will to inherit the business after I’m gone. There’s not much saved up, but it should be enough that it won’t cost anything out of your pocket. Or are you so impatient that you can’t wait a few years?”
I’d never known my chest could hurt and feel good at the same time before. “I…” I choked back the tears. “I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything, I know you love this place almost as much as I do. Knowing that you’ll take care of it after I’m gone is all the thanks I need.” She waited for a moment. “You look like you need a hug.”
A hug would be nice. “Mmmhmm.” I nodded then stood.
“Okay.” She pressed a hand to the desk and used it to stand, while extending her other arm to me. “Come here, you.”