Outreach: The Slip Up

ARCHAVEN

BLACK OPS STAFF LOCKERS

 

There were over twelve thousand possible combinations to open the combination lock Vera Newman kept on her locker in the corner of the black ops staff and prep room. She had taken the smallest locker, in the corner, since she wasn’t expected to bring gear – all she needed was her face. Well, her collection of faces.


Twelve thousand possible combinations might have been a problem to someone else, but Solomon Swift’s fingers span adroitly around the dial. Three thousand and four… Four thousand ten…

 

Click.

 

He eased the locker door open. Quietly, quietly.

 

Wasteland was already in a mood. His Black Ops mentor and friend, Trick, was in the medical center. Doctors said it could go either way. His bad luck powers had overcompensated against a bad guy, and the guy’s whole string of grenades had gone off, catching Trick in the blast as well. Mission accomplished, sure, but an operative was down, possibly done.

 

The rest of the guys had met for a quiet drink, to tell a few stories. The usual stuff. His armor was in quiet mode, for now. Every Black Operative knew that Wasteland could move very, very quietly when he wanted to. It was a misdirection, part of a big plan to make him seem like a big ol’ tank that couldn’t drive straight if his life depended on it.

 

He put a hand on the locker room door, and paused. Goddammit, Trick. He knew better than to use his powers around explosives.

 

Solomon heard the door open and took a breath, slowly easing Vera’s locker door shut with the present inside. He managed to get just enough distance between the locker and him that he could look somewhat casual, a little less suspicious. Who was interrupting him? Hopefully it wouldn’t be –

 

Wasteland looked up, saw someone inside already. And then his eyes narrowed behind the helmet. “Solomon. This is really not the time to be around here. Half the guys here already ha…. Wait. Why the hell are you in the Black Ops room?”

 

Swift put on his best smile. “Hey, Thomas, I was just –”

Screams. They were always screaming, his name, asking why. It was his mom screaming, again, this time, why this time, in his ears. The fire raged around him. His breath hitched, and all he could see was fire and redness for a long moment. He took a breath. Another.

 

Wasteland’s armor steamed the very humid air around him as he went into that past mental state. The locker room went up several degrees as well, drying the air in a small thermal.

 

Wasteland’s voice went low, flat, and guttural with suppressed rage. “Solomon. Swift. I have… asked you… not to call me that. And this place… this is not for you. Last chance.”

 

“Alright, alright, I’m sorry, Wasteland. I was… meeting a friend here, that’s done, I’ll clear out.” He raised his hands in a pacifying gesture and moved towards the door.

 

Wasteland is lightning quick, and makes a grab for Solomon as he tries to pass. “You don’t have friends in here, Solomon. I know. These guys are my family.”  That low, guttural growl is still there, and there’s something that Solomon hasn’t seen before in Wasteland’s body language. This isn’t Wasteland, nice guy and hero. This is Wasteland, soldier. Killer.

 

Solomon Swift is fast, but he expected Wasteland to let him pass – and so his shirt is grabbed in that gauntlet. There’s the hiss of heat against the plastic of his buttons. “Th- Wasteland, come on, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill -”

“Yeah?” Wasteland lifts Solomon up, one handed. This new suit, it is glorious. Not even a strain to his systems, lifting Solomon up. “On a day like today? Who’re you fucking with in here, Swiftie? Decided that maybe since Trick is out of commission, you should inherit his stuff? To the best go the spoils? Or maybe since Roberts and you had it out in the cafeteria because you two disagreed on… oh right, saving kids, you thought it’d be funny to mess up the pictures of his family? Well?”

 

The shirt starts with tiny licks of flame around Wasteland’s gauntlet, and that faint scent of plastic burning wafts through the locker room.

 

“No, no, no, dude, no, you – it’s not like that, it’s – I’m not a monster, man, it’s just -” He looks down at the flames burning the collar of his expensive shirt and cringes away. “It’s Newman, and it’s not a big deal, okay? You don’t have to do this.”

Wasteland digested this for a moment. “Huh.” And he walked, with Solomon, still in his upraised right hand, towards Newman’s locker. He opens it, assuming that the lock hadn’t clicked shut. He’s quiet, his suit is quiet, save for the quiet hissing of melting, bubbling plastic and tiny licks of flame from the shirt.

 

Inside her locker, admit the clothes and bags and boots, is a small bag of –


Solomon snatches it, swinging off Wasteland’s gauntlet. The shirt is gone, ripped and burning in Wastelands hand. Shirtless and holding whatever it was, Solomon begins to sprint out the back door.

 

Wasteland’s world went red and orange. The fire screamed to be let out, to burn and ash Solomon, to utterly destroy. And he couldn’t… hold it back….much… he tapped his comm, broadcasted to the black ops folks.

 

“Someone. Anyone. Please. Get…. Dr. Meda. O-or…. Rooster. Or s-someone…. I’m about to kill Swift.”

 

And then there was nothing but incoherent rage as he chased after Solomon, the suit thundering after Swift, demolishing the steel bench between them into shattered, molten steel.

 

If Solomon Swift was anything but a speedster, he would have been dead already. He tore out the door and down the hallway, sprinting at top speed. For him, the lockers and doors just moved in a blur. “Fuck, fuck, oh fuck, someone get Meda, someone get Rooster, someone get me the hell out of here -”

There wasn’t anything smooth or pretty about how Wasteland moved as he barreled through the Hallway, his armor nearing fireball status. The walls burned, the footsteps torched the very pretty tile, and the steel warped with his passing. And then there was the speakers, broadcasting his wordless roar of rage that sounded, probably to Solomon, like the incoming roar of a backdraft.

 

And he ran, gaining speed. Somewhere, behind the rage, he noted that on his HUD, that people were getting out of the way, clearing quickly. Thank God. But that little voice was a very little voice, and couldn’t be heard over the roar of the Fire.

 

Loud and clear through the comms cut a calm, steady voice suddenly spoke, inserting itself between Wasteland’s red-hazed vision and his mind. Meda.

 

“This isn’t you, Wasteland,” she enunciated, “you are not this. Come back with me. Come to the beach. Standing on the shore, watching the whitecaps. It’s all right.”

 

Wasteland stumbles, but keeps going, the suit taking over, mostly, as the Fire suddenly gives way to a flash of a calm beach. Cool breeze. Waves crashing. But then the fire is back, raging, burning hot, and he keeps going. The little voice manages to get a little control, and he responds.

 

“It’s too hot… too hot… he’s… he wanted to hurt a friend. I can’t…. I can’t….” Wasteland gasps out, as he continues on. He catches sight of Swift as he turns a corner, then Wasteland crashes into the wall shortly after, hot on Swift’s heels. “NO ONE HURTS MY FRIENDS.”

 

“You’re justice now, Wasteland,” Meda reminded him, “and this isn’t justice. The fire isn’t justice. A painful death for Swift won’t make this right. Walk with me on the beach, Wastey.”

 

The waves on the beach crash against the fire, the soothing sound of the ocean. The hypnotic suggestions were a very, very good idea. The Fire gutters and snarls with incoherent rage as it dies a slow death, clawing for every inch of control before it’s gone, stuffed back in the iron willed control of Wasteland.

 

“I’m justice. I’m… I’m… I’m the one…” Wasteland saw Swift, again, and… halted…. Just…. Breathing. Trying to get control. Gauntlets on his knees. Everything hurt. It hurt so bad.

 

Why did everything hurt?

 

“You did it,” Meda assured him. “You are justice. You are strength. Calm waves and whitecaps. Placid sand and sunlight. You are Wasteland. You are in control. You are going to be all right.”

 

At this point, Swift was smart enough to stay out of sight, a couple of hallways over, panting and glistening with sweat.

 

Wasteland took another deep breath. His lifesigns were stabilizing, but the amount of radiation that he’d put out inside the suit…. He’d burned through two weeks of radiation absorbers in less than a minute. Oh dear.

 

He took another deep breath. The Fire was still screaming to get out, to just burn things. “Swift. Swift put… put something in Vera’s locker. C-caught him. He stole it before I could…. Could grab it. Put it in her locker. Ca-can’t let him get away with that.” At some point he’d fallen to his knees. When’d he do that? That… that isn’t right.

 

He stood, slowly. And started moving towards Swift, where he thought Swift was.

 

There’s one clue: the broom closet has a waft of burnt skin coming from inside.

 

“Wasteland, he works here.”

 

“Yes.” Wasteland’s voice is rough, and he opens the door quickly, nearly wrenching it open, but not tearing it off the hinges. “Yes, yes he does. And… I will report his transgressions, and make sure he…. Comes with me, and doesn’t hide what he’s done. And… I will make amends for the damage I caused.” His voice sounds steadier, quieter, and more like the Wasteland Dr. Meda has worked with and known for years.

 

Solomon Swift stares up at Wasteland in terror from the floor of the broom closet.

 

“Solomon.” Wasteland looks down at the man, and his gauntlets flex once. “Solomon, we’re going to go to the HR office. We are going to make a report. You are going to confess what you tried to do. I…. apologize…. For trying to kill you. I am going to pay you back for your shirt, and your medical treatment. Let’s go.”

 

“Okay.” Solomon says, standing. He looks at the floor as Wasteland walks him to the HR office, staying otherwise silent.

 

The HR office is empty of the usual administrative staff, which means they’ve been warned and told to clear out. Instead, Michael Cheney and Dr. Meda are waiting.

 

“Mr. Cheney. Dr. Meda.” Wasteland says stiffly. He stands at mostly attention. Still soldier Wasteland, in his mind set, the rigid, iron, self control.

 

“This is an issue with someone’s locker?” Cheney asks, giving the conversation enough respect to not have his feet up on the desk.

 

“…I tried to plant illegal drugs on Vera Newman’s locker so she would be removed from the black ops unit.

“And I caught him in the midst of doing so. I lost my temper, sir, ma’am. It has… been a rough day for me, already. I apologize for not immediately taking this to a higher authority.”

 

“Well, Solomon, you’re paying for all the damages. And this is going in your record.”

“Yes, sir.”

Cheney clapped his hands. “I think we’re good with that, yes?”

Doctor Meda just… frowned. Silent.

 

“Yes, sir.” Solomon said again.

 

Wasteland blinks behind his helmet. Well, that was more than…. Okay, that was a major hit against Solomon. But the guy did try to get Vera screwed over. And arguing with superiors would probably be a Very Bad Idea. “Yes, sir.” He’d pay for a new shirt for the guy.

 

“Nami?” Cheney looked at the woman at his side.

 

Nami fixed her heterochromatic eyes on Swift for a moment, then said: “I recommend that Mr. Swift undergo a treatment program to address his inappropriate coping mechanisms.”

 

My inappropriate -” Swift takes a breath. “Like, one of those seminars you can do at home? Sure. Okay.”

“No,” Dr. Meda’s voice was no louder, but firm as steel. “A supervised clinical treatment program. In my office, once a week, for a minimum of six weeks.”

 

Solomon glances at Wasteland, then looks at his feet again. “Okay.”

Wasteland doesn’t move from his stiff, statue impersonation. He expected a lot worse. Might be worse after Solomon leaves. He swallows a little. But doesn’t look at Solomon. Don’t want to feed any fuel to the fire.

 

“Dismissed, Ellis.”

 

Solomon blanches and turns, slouching out of the office, and Cheney turns to Wasteland.


“Did he deserve it?”

Wasteland pauses, thinking. “Sir… he didn’t deserve the beating I wanted to give him. Nobody deserves that kinda thing. With how angry I was, I might have killed him.” He takes another breath. “That said, you both know the things I’ve done, that the Black Ops teams do. We look out for each other, no matter what. If someone screwed with Apex, you know I’d have his back. Same with everyone, even Rodriguez…. Who is as much of an ass as Swift. And I’d know they’d do the same for me.”

 

Another breath. “Vera’s new to that part of the life. She’s going to get into the shit, real shit, soon. She needs to be able to know that she comes home to a safe place, with people who will watch out for her.”

 

“So no, he might not have deserved the beating that I was going to give. But he damned well deserved the terror that any operative should give him for even thinking of messing with us in our safe place. Sir. Ma’am.”

 

Cheney nodded. “Stay away from him. He’ll be working shit jobs for a long time. And he’s banned from the Anvil until this cools down between the two of you. Understand?”

“Understood, sir.” Wasteland nods.

 

“Dismissed, Wasteland.” Cheney span in his chair and then looked at Nami. “Talk to Vera, and make sure Solomon does his sessions.” He grins. “Sorry.”

“I’ll live.”

 

Outreach: Surprise Visit

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH

 

Callister hadn’t contacted Benny in almost a day, and the boy had given him room too, evidently realizing that his boyfriend still needed some time.

 

Then, a text from Benny.

Hey. What are you up to?

 

A reply came back about five minutes later.

Kicking faces in Salt Lake City.

 

cool

 

That was it, for about fifteen minutes. Then:

Are you kicking faces, like, now-now?

 

About two minutes later.

Texting you inbetween bouts.

 

Pretty soon after that:

Okay. Wanna take a break for dinner?

 

It seemed that his bouts were about five minutes long.

Yeah could eat. Wait. you’re here?

 

Kinda, yeah

 

Actually definitely yeah

 

Um where should I meet you

 

The reply came with a map tag.

A diner nearby. Got good burgers.

 

See you soon. <3

 

Callister was already there when Benny arrived. There were already a couple of burgers and fries in front of Callister, but he was eating slowly due to what appeared to be a swollen jaw and cracked and bruised knuckles. He waved his burger at Benny when he spotted his boyfriend through bruised black eyes.

 

“Hey! Got you a burger, but I was gonna eat it if you didn’t come sooner.” He sounded…almost chill, if not cheerful.

 

“You can still eat it, if you want,” Benny’s voice was more than a little relieved at Callister’s tone, but also reflected a cringing sympathy at his injuries. “I can, like. Buy my own. God, it’s good to see you.”

Callister shrugged. That looked like it hurt too as he lifted his shoulder experimentally then winced again.  “Is’okay. Got pie coming. And more fries. You look good.”

 

“Really?” Benny’s smile was a little wan. “I haven’t been sleeping much. And you look like hell, but I’m sure you know that. Sorry I dropped in unannounced, I was just getting– um. You know what I’m like.” He drew the burger toward him and picked it up, then took a bite once he was done talking. This elicited an appreciative noise, and he nodded to Callister: oh hey, yeah, the burger is good.

 

Callister smiled widely (as widely as he could) at shared appreciation of good burg. “Yeah, it’s okay. Surprised me is all.” There were a couple milkshakes on the table, and Callister pushed one towards Benny before taking a pull out of his. “Feeling better than I did earlier, yeah.”

 

“I’m glad. Nat filled me in. That must have been…” Benny trailed off, unsure how or whether to finish the sentence. He took a bite of burger instead.

 

Callister shrugged again. “Yeah.” He took glum bite out of his burger.  There was silence for a moment. “Nat brought you here?”

 

Benny smirked. “What, you don’t think I can afford a sudden plane ticket halfway across the country?” He took a sip of milkshake. “Yeah, ey brought me here.”

 

The redhead snorted, a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Yeah, you’re a secret millionaire is what you are. Slumming in your one room to fool us all.” Callister grinned. It was pretty disgusting with painful looking gums and bits of burger in his teeth, but it lightened his face up.

 

“It’s how I hide my superhero identity,” Benny said through a mouthful of burger, “it’s true, Callister. I’ve been lying to you. I am… The Icon.”

 

“It hot how you turn into a mysterious fighting lady, but I’m sad you never fight me.” That pout, Callister. Stop.

 

“Well, I can’t risk winning,” Benny said, playing right into it. “It’s so much more fun to lose fights to you.”

 

“Now I can’t boast that my boyfriend’s the Icon.” A big, heavy sigh. “This is sad and bad. You know how many more fights I could get if I say that?” He snickered.

 

“Your mouth is telling stories about how hard it is for you to find a fight,” Benny said, “but the rest of your face is telling a real different story, babe.”

 

“Yeah…but beating up the Icon’s boyfriend. You know how many people would want to do that? Plus, pretty sure they’d buy me drinks after.” Callister nodded.

 

“What is it with you and wanting to get beat up?” The joking look on Benny’s face fell away. “How much do you need to punish yourself for this, Cal?”

 

Callister shrugged again. “I like pain. Sometimes. Giving, taking. Needed to give and take this time. Just needed to make the pain numb today.”

 

“Oh, babe,” Benny’s voice was pained, but he nodded. “Okay. Just makes a guy worry, you know?”

 

“Yeah. Sorry. I..Yeah. I got real angry at myself. I’m kinda not so much anymore.”

 

There’s a quiet, but distinct sound of repetitive ‘thoom’ outside the diner. Salt Lake City wasn’t really known for a lot of super heroes, but there was one walking this way in the fading evening light. He entered carefully, the door giving a little jingle, and the dark green helmet with glowing eyes looked around until it settled on Callister and Benny. And he started walking their way.

 

“Babe,” Benny murmured in a surprisingly calm voice betrayed only by the width of his baby blues, “were you expecting The Wasteland to join us for dinner? If so, could you like. Give me a heads-up next time?”

 

“Babe, if I were, I wouldn’t have gotten my knuckles all busted.” Callister frowned as he got out from the booth. He didn’t look like he was readying himself for a fight, but more like meeting an opponent on equal ground. “Wasteland. To what do I owe this honor.” There was wariness in his tone.

 

“Tough man to track down, Callister. Or do you prefer the Red Knight?” Wasteland asked, looking around. A few people were gaping similarly to Benny. Oof. Hokay, lets just… oy.

 

Wasteland paused, and looked at Callister. “If you’re willing, I’ve got a proposition for you.”

 

“I wasn’t planned on being found for a few days.” Callister shifted his weight and crossed his arms. Standing up, it was pretty obvious that he was hiding a limp and holding his torso stiffly. “What sort of proposition?”

Wasteland remembered his manners, a little late, but still. “Sorry for interrupting your dinner.” He said to Benny, and looked back at Callister. “It’s, uh– okay–“ “You can sit down, man, I’m not here to do anything serious. Just wanted to make you an offer. People higher up are impressed. And you’ve got no criminal record, and you’re a free agent.”

 

“I’m here to make you an offer. Competitive salary. Insurance. Support. Hazard pay. Training for your powers and your skills, and a safe haven, if you want it. We’d like you on the Freelancers,” Wasteland said quietly.

 

Callister did not sit down. Instead he frowned, squinting through bruised black eyes. “Why? I’m Hyacinth Mills’ son. Last thing you people need is to trust me. Get your badge on me, get your training, and maybe I might go rescue dear old mother from the nasty Legion.” He wasn’t exuding hostility, only caution and distrust.

 

Benny’s eyes darted back and forth as the crowd started to stare more in earnest, murmuring to each other.

 

“Benny, is everything–” The redhead who’d just poked eir head into the restaurant blinked in surprise. “–Wastey?”

 

“Hey, Nat.” He waved, and nodded at em. “You’re friends with Nat too. Of course. Of course.” He looked back at Callister. “If the Freelancers, believed that, if I believed that you’d try to rescue your mother, I don’t think I’d be here, offering you the job. You don’t have to say yes, Callister. It’s an offer. That’s all. I think you’d fit well with us.” He shrugged. “This isn’t something you need to answer right away.”

 

“And just because you’re someone’s son, shouldn’t define who you are. At least, that’s what I think.”

 

“Damn straight. Is all this as weird as I think it is? It feels weird.” Nat chimed in.

 

“Yeah…I’ll think about it.” Callister looked like he was satisfied with the answer even if he wasn’t ready to say yay or nay just yet.

 

Wasteland nods. “We’ll be in touch, then… oh, christ. Did I really just say that? I did. I sound like Cheney. Gonna go drown myself in at least two bottles of scotch…” Wasteland shakes his head, chuckling to himself. He waves as he heads out. “Glad you made it out okay, Nat.” He says as he passes em on his way out.

 

“Thanks, buddy!” Nat grinned, then stage-whispered, “that’s my brother, by the way! That’s Benny! Oh hey can I come with? I wanna stick around but I don’t want to interrupt their date. More.

 

“Yeah, sure, no problem.” He chuckles. He gives em a thumbs up about the brother….. Trying to be discreet. He fails.

 

Callister watched Nat and Wasteland see themselves out before he slipped back in the booth. He ignored the whispering crowd and picked at the remains of his burger. His eyes looked up and caught Benny’s. “You wanna we get boxes for the pies and go to the park or something?”

 

“That sounds good,” Benny nodded, looking a little nervous about the attention from the crowd.

 

“Para faggots!” Someone in the restaurant shouted. It wasn’t clear who.

 

Callister stood. He was smiling, his split lip opened up and bleeding again as he slowly looked around at the crowd. Try me said his teeth. See how you like it said his eyes. I want to see you at my feet said his stance. I. Will. Destroy. You.

 

No one met his gaze.

 

And then there was the gentle touch of a callused hand on his arm. Benny’s voice, low but audible, behind him.

 

“Love. Let’s just… go. Please?”

 

Callister was slow to respond, milking the fear in the crowd. His teeth were bared in a ready grin.

 

Then, making sure that everyone knew that their peaceful lives remained peaceful due to the soft words of a young blond man, Callister bent slightly and kissed Benny’s hair. “Sure thing, babe. Lemme grab my coat.” Callister then took Benny by the arm, his heavy steps ringing out a definite message to the diner. I could burn you all. Laugh at your ashes. But not today.

 

The bell tinkled. And they were gone.

 

“Shame,” Callister said once they were outside. “I liked that place.” He shrugged and the Red Knight was gone.

 

“You can, still,” Benny replied, looking up at Callister’s eyes. “Everything has a rough side.”

 

“Nah. Next time I go in, I’ll smell their old fear. Not good y’know.” He smiled at Benny, hugging him close. “When’s your next shift?” He didn’t elaborate why it wouldn’t be good.

 

“The day after tomorrow. I told the manager that I had a family emergency, so if I need to be longer I have an excuse.”

 

“Good.” Callister smiled. “What say you and me roadtrip back to Rock City?”

 

Benny smiled broadly. “I like that idea a lot,” he said, “but can we, um. Take a minute before we leave?”

 

“Yeaah? Sure.” Callister was already leading them to his car.

 

“Well, um. We haven’t really. Had time to ourselves in a while…”

 

“Wanna fuck me, Benny?”

 

There was that signature Benny blush. “Um,” he said quietly. “Yeah.”

 

“Good.” Callister’s voice had gotten husky. “Cuz I need to scream and I know you can do that for me, Benny.” He nuzzled his blond lover’s temple.

 

“Ohgodyes,” Benny gasped, pushing back against the nuzzle. “Do you have a hotel or…”

 

“I was thinking we find somewhere private and you could fuck me in the car.”

 

“Oh fuck. Yes that’s– yes. Um. I’m… really glad I dropped by, Cal.”

 

“And I’m glad I dropped my pants for you.”

 

They reached the car, consulted a map, and drove off.

 

Outreach: The Burden

A TEMPORARY NULL ZONE

LOCATION CONFIDENTIAL

TIME CONFIDENTIAL

 

The staff here were Nulls, from the sanitation workers to the warden.


It bothered Alice.


She stood by a window. Everything here was metal and glass. It felt more like a laboratory than a prison.

 

A floor down, Hyacinth Mills was bound at wrist and ankle as she was being processed.

 

Alice couldn’t stop staring at the woman. She had seen Hyacinth in this position once before, in the Flying Fortress’s prison. She had gotten out. She had killed again. She had…

 

Wasteland entered the room, quietly. His suit was in quiet mode, the machinery as silent as a whisper. He watched Alice for a time, her body language. The way she stared at Hyacinth.

 

They were alone in the observation room. The nulls below were working to make sure Anathema was controlled. Monitored. But would it be enough?

 

Wasteland wasn’t sure, and he wasn’t sure what Alice would do.

 

The woman was eternally nineteen, though she was also over forty years old. He couldn’t begin to comprehend that kind of dichotomy.

 

Finally, he spoke, his tone somber. “She wanted us to kill her. Did you know that?”

 

“No.” Alice said. She glanced at Wasteland, and then shrugged. “I’m not surprised, though. She always has some plan. Some… scheme to tear people down and rip them apart. She probably had cameras set up, or she’s hoping that if you killed her, you’d be corrupted, or… I don’t know. I don’t like to think how she thinks.”

Wasteland nodded. “Makes sense.” He stared at the prisoner for a long moment, then said. “Are you going to kill her?”

 

“What? No! No, no, no, God, no!” The words were soaked with defensiveness. It didn’t take a social dynamo to tell she had been thinking about it. “Thou shall not kill. The Word of God is crystal clear on this.”

“Yeah. I know. But didn’t He also say, there is a time for everything? A time to kill, and a time to heal? I think it was in Ecclesiastes, or Numbers. Can’t remember.”

 

Wasteland looks at Alice, then back down to Anathema. “And if she gets her powers back. I’m worried about that, too. Yes, there are Nulls here. But there’s… something off about her. About her powers. They were different than I’ve ever seen. And I’m worried.” He puts his hands behind his back, as Anathema continues to talk with the Null guards.

 

“I’m worried too. This is why the Freelancers are taking her. We… the Legion tried to contain her. We failed. I…”

“And someone, some idiot… might say yes. And that’s why you’re here. To make sure. That she never gets out again,” Wasteland said, quietly. “To the best of your ability. But you’re unsure if anything can contain her.”

 

“That more people might get killed. More people dead, because of her ambition, her thirst for control.” Wasteland seems to be talking to himself, as well as to Alice.

 

“Yeah.” Alice said, voice hoarse. “Yeah, that… sounds about right. But I can’t… I… I can’t… That’s not my place. I can’t play God. That’s not my decision to make.”

Wasteland pauses, then looks at Alice. “Even if, when she gets out, she might go after your family, as before?”

 

Wasteland looked away, back to Anathema. He heard screams in the back of his mind, and shook his head slightly. “I’ve seen people kill. Good people, Oathkeeper. There’s… things that their body does. The way it tenses. The set of a jaw. The breathing. When you consciously make that decision, to do it, in cold blood. And you were close, I think.”

 

“And I don’t judge you for that. But I don’t want to see you destroyed by her.”

 

“I have kids.” Alice whispered, looking away. “I have kids. I would… sentence myself to anything for them. I just… It’s hard. I don’t know what to do. I’m a mother. I’m a Christian. I…”

“Have you ever killed anyone, Oathkeeper? In battle, I mean, in a fight?” He asks, quietly, his tone calm but accepting.

 

“No. Never.”

Wasteland nodded. “You wouldn’t sleep anymore, I don’t think. It isn’t something you’re cut out for. You’re a good person.”

 

He looks at Alice, and nods. “Yeah.” Then he looks back to Anathema. “I’ve seen that kind of stuff eat other people from the inside out. Knowing what they’ve done. Had to do. Even if you didn’t go to prison, or trial, it’d kill you. It’d destroy the Oathkeeper.”

 

“But it wouldn’t destroy me. I’m not…. Heh. I’m not a hero. So… I think you may need to take a walk. I can… handle this.”

 

“I can’t. I defend life. I can’t…” She shakes her head and sets her jaw. “Go home, Wasteland.”

Wasteland looks at Alice. “You defend life. Defend your kids. Defend other people. Defend civilization.”

 

He gestured towards the trapped woman. “She would have enslaved the world just for her own control. She wants to kill you, kill your family, for her own amusement.”

 

“The world would be better if she was gone. And you know it.”

 

“I won’t let you.”

Alice stood there.


And stood there.


And then she realized that the nature of the facility affected more than just Anathema.


Wasteland turns to Alice, and looks at her. “You’d really defend her life, at the possible cost of your own? Even knowing, that should she get free, your husband, your children, might be murdered in front of you?”

 

“If we kill her, she wins. We become the same as her.” Alice said, face painted with naked desperation and fear and uncertainty.

 

Wasteland looks at Alice, then at Hyacinth. “I’ve always hated that argument.” He looks back at Alice. “I am not going to hurt you, Alice. I’m -not- her.”

 

“I wouldn’t become a mass murdering, manipulative, power hungry monster like her. I don’t use my powers to subjugate, or control.” He raises one armored hand. “This is, and always has been, used to help, and protect people.”

 

“Sometimes it means that you’ve got to remove the cancer. Amputate the diseased.”

 

“She knows something.” Alice blurts. “She keeps taunting us with it. She knows something, if we kill her, doesn’t that die with her?”

Wasteland pauses, thinking. “That’s why I asked you, why she wanted us to kill her. What do you mean, she knows something?”

 

“She keeps saying it. ‘You don’t know about it’? Something about her. Something about me.” Alice looks away, pain and anger on her face. “She’ll be in Freelancer custody after this. You may have… more shots… at… your plan. But… What does she know?”

Wastelands voice becomes hard, and unmerciful. “Then we’ll find out. By any means necessary.”

 

Alice opens her mouth, and then there’s a voice from behind her.


“Mrs. McGowan.” Adam Nova steps into the observation room, wearing his black peacoat and heavy frames. “Good to see you.”

“Adam.” Alice said, too surprised to be angry or cold.

 

“We’re getting ready to transport the prisoner. Due to Freelancer confidentiality laws, we need all Legionnaires off the premises. I’m sure you understand.”

Wasteland turns and… well. To DeGuerr he’d salute, or something. To Adam Nova, his tone goes to super respectful. “Mr. Nova, sir.”

 

Alice glances at Nova, and then at Wasteland.


“Now, Mrs. McGowan.” Adam says, voice cool. Alice opens her mouth as if to argue, shakes her head, and leaves.

 

Nova moves to the observation window. “I listened in.” he admits. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“It’s your facility, sir. I would figure that you’d know everything. Or most of everything. I don’t mind at all, sir.” He pauses, then asks, “Permission to speak freely, sir?”

 

“Granted.”

“I think we’re playing with an active bomb in a house that’s on fire with containing Anathema alive, sir.” He gestures to all the precautions, all the work that’s being done. “After her initial breakdown, she was confident again. Assured. She said that she’d want to speak to Mr. Cheney, or other of our top brass. She had a plan. I might just be paranoid. But I think there’s more going on than I know, at the very least. And I hate bad intel on any operation, sir, or being a mushroom.”

 

“I happen to agree with everything you said – up to and including keeping the Oathkeeper’s hands clean. This is why we exist. This is why we need Freelancers in the world. The Legion can’t be trusted with these sensitive situations.”

Nova turned to Wasteland and inclined his head up, looking away from Anathema. “You have six hours. Anathema has a fatal allergy to peanuts, and our staff was not informed. That’s the story. Call me when you’re done with whatever you plan to do.”

Wasteland paused, then looked at Adam Nova. “Yes, sir.” He turned to head down to the prison cell, the armor quiet, but the body language of the armored man was of a man doing his duty, however distasteful it might be.

 

ADAM NOVA’S OFFICE

ARCHAVEN

FOUR HOURS LATER

 

Nova is smoking as Wasteland enters, sitting at his great circular desk.

 

Wasteland doesn’t mince words. He just goes straight to the report, standing with his arms behind his back, looking down at Nova. “Sir. This is…. Something that’s above my paygrade. She was talking about something called Avatars. She possessed a scholar some years back, who had a working theory. Things that were… that empowered people. Like her. Like Mrs. McGowan, and that they are two different sides of the same coin.”

 

He paused for breath. “And that her plan… was to kill Oathkeeper, so that her son, Callister, could take Oathkeeper’s place. She didn’t know how it would happen. She just planned on it. That somehow, they’d become… these Avatars. I don’t know how much I believe, but I know that -she- believes it.”

 

Nova took a long draw on his cigar. “Well, shit.” He finally said. “You want a drink?”

“…. definitely, sir.” Wasteland says. He’s tense, a little worked up, and obviously concerned.

 

Adam produces a large bottle of high quality scotch and pours two glasses. He hands one of them to Wasteland, polishes off his own, and then pours himself another drink. “Too many variables.” He says. “Anathema is still alive?”

“Yes, sir. Given the fact that these Avatars are… I don’t know. Transferable? Or that she believes that they are passable to others, I thought it would be too high a risk to possibly give these powers to someone who could be much less focused on revenge and more focused on control, or worse. If she’s right. If she was just… any other paranormal, she’d be gone, but this is something I didn’t account for in my initial proposal. In hindsight, I’m glad I held off and talked first.” A straw extends from one of his gauntlets, and drains the glass quickly.

 

Nova pours again. “Havelock.” He says, after a pause.

 

Wasteland takes this glass slower, draining it and savoring it… as much as he can. “Sorry, sir, I’m not sure I follow.” He sounds a bit lost, this is definitely not his element.

 

“Helen Havelock. Golden armour. Sword of light. No wings, no healing, but does the rest sound familiar to you?”

Wasteland doesn’t move, trying to process this. After a few moments, the radioactive mouse running in his brain moves fast enough for him to make the connections. “Oh… shit. When the… Invader came in, broke her… the Avatar, I’m guessing? Moved to Mrs. McGowan.  It isn’t connected to the person. When… one vessel can’t keep going, it’ll move on to the next.”

 

“And Anathema is broken.” Adam says, quiet. He rubs his hands against each other and pours more scotch. “We keep Mills alive. We just had a lot of variables introduced. Handling the press and Legion is doable, but we need our focus elsewhere.”

Wasteland hadn’t thought of that, that Anathema might be broken enough to lose that power. “Shit.” Somehow he puts a lot of worry into that one word, but refocuses. Move on to the next objective. You can’t always win all the marbles.

 

“Understood, sir. Any particular orders you have for me, sir?”

 

“I understand the Red Knight helped save the day.”

“Yes, sir. From what I understand from Mills, he refused to even try and accept this Avatar from Mrs. McGowan.” Wasteland nodded, thinking. “He might provide confirmation. But legally, he’s technically not a wanted man, right now.” Wasteland put the drink down, carefully. “Do you want me to bring him in?”

 

“I think we should start convincing him as to the benefits of a career with the Freelancers.”

“Carrot first, then,” Wasteland nods. “I can make the offer, if you’d like, sir, or we can have Mr. Cheney or one of our other recruiters try and talk with him, I suppose.” He pauses, thinking back. “Sir, I’m… a little concerned that Anathema singled out Mr. Cheney, when we brought her in. Am I still being paranoid?”

 

“No. I don’t care for having an obvious weak link.” Nova rubs his chin in thought. “I’ll think on that. Oh. One more thing. I think you should talk to Mrs. McGowan. Tell her that her rhetoric swayed you. Thank her for adding her input.”

Wasteland nodded. “Yes, sir, I’ll do that. Thank you for your time, sir.”

“I always have time for a solid agent. Take care of yourself, Wasteland.”

Wasteland nodded, and about faced, walking out of the office. Things really did get interesting around here, sometimes. He just hoped he wasn’t in over his head.

 

As soon as the doors close behind Wasteland, Nova turns and picks up a phone.


He dials a number, then waits.


“Hello, Estelle?”

 

Outreach: Live Reckoning

ALICE McGOWAN’S OFFICE
THE FLYING FORTRESS

 

Someone knocked on Alice’s door. Few usually bothered, this week; she hadn’t been around. Whoever it was must either have gotten very lucky or knew her schedule.

 

“Come in.” Alice called in a hoarse voice. She didn’t bother to look up. One hand held a pen that aimlessly doodled circles. The other flexed and relaxed, forming a fist over and over again.

The door opened, and then shut, no footsteps audible in between or afterward.

 

“Hi, Nat.” Alice still didn’t look up.

 

“You busy?” Nat asked in a voice that knew she wasn’t.

 

“Not really.” Alice admitted.

 

“Can we talk?”

 

There’s a long pause where Alice keeps her head down, but stops doodling. “Yeah.”

“It’s about Twin Falls.” Nat settled down onto the chair in front of Alice’s desk, eir eyes fixed on her.

 

“Figured.”

 

“Oh?”

 

Alice finally looked up. She had dark circles under her eyes. “Yeah.” she says. “It was… rough. For all of us.”

Nat’s face looked as pristine and youthful as ever, but had a deadly set to it that was distinctly atypical. “I know. It was. And I want you to understand that as your friend– your family –I’m here for you, okay? I have your back, Alice.”

 

“Did you come to my office to tell me that?”

Nat sighed. “No. Because I’d already said that to you. And I’m going to say it again later, and I don’t need to corner you in an empty office to say it, and I know you already know it. So no. That’s not what I came here to say.”

 

Alice spins her pen listlessly. “Okay. So. Shoot.”

Nat took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “If… if Callister hadn’t showed up, we would all be mind-controlled husks and it’d be your fault.”

 

Alice’s eyebrows shoot up. “That’s…” She pauses. “A conclusion.”

“You had her on the ground, Alice,” Nat murmured quietly. “You were on top of her. She was no match for you, her thralls couldn’t reach you. You had won. You had her.”

 

Alice goes back to doodling circles. Her tone is flat. “If Callister hadn’t shown up, Scott would have ordered Scanner to wipe Twin Falls off the map.” She gave a low whistle, and a thoom with her mouth.

 

“Tens of thousands of lives lost,” Nat nodded, confirming it. “Everything we’d worked for, gone. A major hit to the Legion. And all it would have cost to prevent is one life. Just one.”

 

“That wouldn’t be a victory, Nat. You’re right. You’re right. But…” A tear leaked out of the corner of Alice’s eye, and she wiped it away. “I couldn’t… I couldn’t, Nat. I… I heard my parents screaming. I felt the fire. I -”

“You’re a General, Alice,” Nat said, eir voice more pleading than scolding. “If I can’t be assured that you won’t sacrifice countless lives for me, how… how can I see myself as anything less than a liability to you, to the Legion?”

 

“I don’t kill. I never kill. I never have killed. Thou shall not kill. It’s in the ten commandments. There’s no wriggle room. There’s no maybe.”

“You’re a general,” Nat repeated, “and that means part of your job is to understand that lives are resources. Yours included, mine included. You didn’t have to kill Anathema. You just had to let her kill me, let her see that she cannot manipulate you. That she didn’t own you.”

Alice flicked the pen, sending it sliding across her desk. “She might be dead now.” her voice was still flat.

 

“You’re trying to change the subject.”

 

“I just… I can do my job perfectly around anyone else. I never, never, never fuck it up unless it’s about Hyacinth! I just… I hate her! I hate her so much, and she hates me, and it’s this roiling bond between us, and I just…” Alice puts her head in her hands and stares at the desk.

 

“So what you’re saying is that it won’t happen again?” Nat floated in a little closer, putting eir hands on the desk’s surface. “That against anyone else, you’ll make the smarter choice?”

 

“I can’t be involved with her ever again.” Alice mutters. “I can’t… she just… gets in my head. I can’t. Anyone else, I do my job perfectly, okay?”

Nat hovered even closer. Even when Alice looked away, she could smell em bearing down, eyes burning a hole in her head. “So if another villain tries to use my life as a bargaining chip, Alice, you will refuse? Yes? Especially if other lives hang in the balance.”

 

“Yes.” Alice says, voice hoarse. “I swear it.”

“Thank you,” Nat murmured. “I’m sorry. I. I know this is cruel. But it’s been haunting me. I can’t be your weak spot.”

 

“If it makes you feel any better, you’re not my weak spot. She is.”

“It does, a little.” Nat reached forward and took Alice’s face in eir hands, tilting it up. “Alice. Hey. You beat her, though. I don’t… think her power is coming back.”

 

“Maybe. She spoke about some… Avatars. She said I was…” Alice looks exhausted. “I haven’t slept since then. I can’t think.”

“Tell me more about it.”

 

“About Avatars? I don’t know. She isn’t sane. She’s insane.” Alice shakes her head again. “She said she and I are both Avatars, locked in some eternal conflict. Reincarnation? I don’t know. Stupid. It’s stupid. I just can’t sleep.”

“Hm,” Nat tapped eir lips with one finger, finally giving Alice a little breathing room. “I bet I know who’d know more.”

 

“Is it Callister?” Alice asked this with as much enthusiasm as “Do we need our oil checked?” or “Is Guy Fieri on the TV?”

“It’s Callister. Wouldn’t knowing more about this give you some peace of mind?”

 

“…” Alice sighed. “Can I talk to Dr. Meda first? Get my head in a better place before you drop any revelations on me?”

“Huh? Oh! Yes, sorry. I’m just. I can’t seem to stop thinking about this stuff,” Nat shook eir head. “But there’s no rush. I’m not likely to lose track of Callister any time soon.”

 

“Okay. I just can’t sleep. I…”

Alice’s phone buzzes, and she checks it – then doublechecks it, grinning widely.

 

“I did it! Nat, I did it!”

“You finally got that ultra rare card in Doki Love?” Nat seemed equal parts puzzled and amused.

 

“What? No. I used the power of God to convince the Freelancers not to kill Hyacinth!”

The balance shifted toward ‘amused’. “Is that right.”

 

“Yes!” Alice beamed, and then gave a jaw-cracking yawn. “I can… maybe I can…” her eyes drift shut for a moment.


“Maybe you can sleep now,” Nat smiled gently.

 

“I have a pullout bed in my office, I can… just… rest my eyes for a couple of minutes.”

“I’ll tuck you in. General Mom.”

 

Outreach: Spaghetti Night

THE MCGOWAN FAMILY HOME

 

“Benny, are you okay? You look sick.” Nat literally hovered over eir older brother, face showing concern. Ey was dressed ‘formally’ in eir best wrap pants, a vest, and a bottle of rosé wine cradled under one arm.

 

“He always looks like that when he’s nervous,” Buster grinned, tossing her bottle of sauvignon blanc end over end before catching it effortlessly. She was dressed in slacks and an untucked button-down, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows—her standard ‘dress’ attire. “You shoulda seen him before we met you for the first time.”

 

“I don’t think the two of you understand,” Benny clutched a bottle of merlot close to his chest. His outfit was similar to Buster’s, but the shirt was tucked in and tidy, the top button was done, and a pair of suspenders and a bow tie rounded out the ‘incredibly dorky dress’ look. “I’m about to go have dinner with the most famous woman in the world, and I’m dating her worst enemy’s son.”

 

“Whatever, geez, I fucked him too and she still loves me,” Nat zipped ahead on the cobblestone walkway, then turned and shrugged. “You’ll be fine. You’re a sweet guy.”

 

Benny just sighed and hugged the bottle of wine tighter.

 

“Here goes!” Nat grinned, whirled about, and pressed the doorbell with a flourish.

 

Scott McGowan opened the door, giving his trademark grin. “Nat! Good to see you again. And wine! I’m always glad to see wine.” He offered his hand to Nat’s siblings. “Hey, I’m Scott. I don’t think Alice mentioned your names. You’re the twins, right? Nat’s siblings?”

“Yes sir,” Benny extended his hand first, eyes a little too wide. “I’m Benny Schuster. It’s an honor, Mr. McGowan.”

 

“Buster!” His sister took Scott’s hand after Benny shook it, grinning widely. “Real honor. I couldn’t be driving the Cestus without your frameworks, Mr. McGowan.”

 

“Hi Scott!” Nat dove in for a hug. “I missed you! Aren’t the twins adorable?”

 

Scott returned the hug, laughing. “They have a certain bright-eyed enthusiasm about them, that’s for sure. Just Scott, please. Christ. Mr. McGowan is my dad’s name.”

“That’s such a dad thing to say,” Alice said, coming out of the kitchen and wiping her hands. “No one actually cool has said that.”

“I’m pretty sure they have, ‘cause I just did.” Scott shot back.

 

“Sorry sir,” Benny said, eyes even wider at the sight of the Oathkeeper, freckled skin pale, “Scott.”

 

“Alice!” Nat squeaked, going in for the hug. “Look look! Siblings!”

 

“Scott it is!” Buster agreed cheerfully. “Hello Mrs. Oathkeeper!”

 

“Does that make me Mr. Oathkeeper?” Scott asked, amused. Alice smiled and shook her head at him, approaching to offer handshakes to the twins and a peck on the cheek and hug for Nat.

 

“I dunno, do you wanna be? Sounds kinda cool, right?” Buster replied.

 

As Alice shook his hand, Benny looked just about ready to faint, a thin sheen of cold sweat on his brow.

 

“I dunno,” Scott said with a grin. “People might expect the hammer and wings combo from me, and that ain’t my style. Benny, you look a bit, ah, pale. Would you like to sit down? We can get you some water, something to nibble on while the sauce simmers?”

Alice nods. “Anything, really. It’s no problem at all.”

“Oh! No. I’m fine,” Benny attempted a feeble reassurance.

 

“Benny’s just a li’l nervous,” Buster clapped her brother on the back and led him inside after Nat. “Until last week, I was the only VIP he knew. Now he’s drownin’ in ’em!”

 

“VIP, huh?” Scott expertly guided the conversation away from Benny. “So you pilot a McGowan tank on the moon? That does sound pretty important, I gotta say. But what are you shooting, exactly?”

“Usually nothin’,” Buster shrugged, “since the Cestus has the best Catalysium shielding of any personnel-sized vehicle, they usually have me walkin’ the dark side of the moon for research purposes. But I’ve blown up some Wheird stuff in my time, if y’know what I mean.” Grin.

 

Nat gently guided Benny to one of the dining room chairs, which he sat in heavily.

 

“No shit,” Scott began, before being interrupted with a: “Language!” And correcting himself with a sigh. “Well, you know, if you want to bring the ol’ girl down while you’re on Earth leave, maybe we can tune her up. Put some racing stripes on her.”

“Holy shhhhoes, that would be amazing,” Buster looked like a kid in a candy store. “I mean like it’s deviated some from the McGowan designs, especially since Valkyrie worked on it, but uh. I think you’ll like it. It’s a real fine tank, Scott. Best walker in PHALANX, maybe anywhere.”

 

“We’ll make it better.” Scott said, clearly thinking about how to do that. “Gotta figure out how the gravity would affect what I’m thinkin’, but…”

“Scott, tone down the work talk, please. We’re here to meet Nat’s siblings.” Alice interrupted. “Please, dinner is almost ready. Why don’t you have a seat? We can get to know each other.”

“Okay! Don’t worry too much about gravity; Cessie’s got Catalysium inverters for shocks that adapt to whatever environment. You’ve got to see ’em in action; I can jump off an earthside dropship with no hull damage.” Buster claimed the seat next to her wan-looking brother as she yammered on, while Nat pretended to take the chair on Benny’s other side.

 

The McGowan children were out of the home at the moment – Alice was concerned about safety risks. And so, the group… ‘enjoyed’ a slightly more close dinner, with the far seats at the dining table being ignored.

 

“So!” Alice said. “You’re, ah, a barista, Benny? That sounds… nice!”

“Yes ma’am,” Benny replied, “in Rock City. I… like to serve people.”

 

“I keep telling him he can do better,” Buster lamented.

 

“I think it sounds nice.” Alice repeated. “I guess you can make lots of… drinks? I thought there was just coffee.”

“Um, well yes,” Benny looked a bit more comfortable, talking about something he feels knowledgeable about. “We have a decent selection of teas, and we sell and mix lemonade and hot cider drinks in the hot and cold months, respectively. Even just with coffee, there are a lot of different things you can do with espresso, and I’ve been practicing my latte art.”

 

He chuckled to himself, recalling something. “In fact, making a little foam heart for him is one of the first things I did when I met my boyf—” he halted mid-word, realizing what he had said.

 

A long, awkward silence dragged by. Scott stood, excusing himself for a moment.

 

“Your boyfriend.” Alice said, smiling just a touch too widely. “That’s so nice. Isn’t that nice?”

“It’s very nice!” Even Nat looked kind of nervous now. “Benny’s a really sweet guy. To everybody.”

 

“To everybody!” Alice agreed. Was her voice a bit higher? “That’s so nice. Even someone like Callister. Who -”

Alice looked at Nat.

 

She looked at Benny.

 

You could see the wheels turning.

 

“I should go,” Benny whispered, teetering in his chair. He didn’t look like he was in any state to even stand.

 

“No! Nope,” Nat placed a firm hand on Benny’s shoulder. “No, we’re all gonna have a nice family dinner. Everyone here is a beloved member of my family and we are going to have dinner together.

 

Alice opens her mouth –

 

And Scott bursts in carrying a heavy pot. “SPAGHETTI!”

“Spaghetti!” Nat agreed!

 

“Spaghetti!” Buster added.

 

Scott eagerly begins to spoon up spaghetti. “It smells delicious, doesn’t it? Alice is such a great cook.”

Alice pours herself a large glass of wine.

 

Nat floated out of eir chair and poured all three siblings glasses to match Alice’s, then looked over at Scott with a questioning expression, wiggling the bottle a bit.

 

He mouthed “yes please,” then redoubled his valiant efforts to change the subject. “So, what kind of machines do you guys use in Rock City? I’m curious. For the coffee, I mean.”

“W-we use the Bean Sidhe’s standardized model,” Benny blinked a few times, fighting to maintain consciousness through dramatically elevated blood pressure, “it automates temperature regulation and monitors pull time, but we grind and dispense ourselves because it’s…” groping unsuccessfully for words, “…better.”

 

“Better, huh? Better quality coffee?” Scott gently slid the conversation back on track as Alice poured herself another glass of wine. “You’re clearly passionate about it. That’s great to see.”

Nat returned to eir seat after pouring Scott a glass of wine to the brim. “Yeah, us Schuster kids,” ey winces a little at saying the name aloud, “we um, take our crafts seriously. In case it wasn’t already obvious.”

 

“How many more siblings do you three have?” Alice asks, and her voice is surprisingly gentle.

 

“Six,” Buster replied. “But we don’t know how many of ’em are still with our folks.”

 

“Is there… anything we can do to help?” Alice continues the line of questioning carefully.

 

Nat averted eir gaze, not replying.

 

Buster glanced at her sibling and then looked back to Alice. “I don’t know,” she said, “our family was pretty f— f-fouled up.”

 

Benny drained his wineglass.

 

“Okay.” Alice said. “If you ever need a family, you can come here. We understand. Even when you… have… problems? That I can’t… quite… understand.”

“Benny has a robot coworker!” Nat cut in, “one of the ones we placed, I think!”

 

Benny nodded, looking miserable but willing to try to dig the conversation out. “Her name is Janet.”

 

“Wow!” Alice said, pouring herself another glass of wine. “What’s… that like?”

“She’s… the most curious person I’ve ever met,” Benny dabbed his forehead with a napkin, “and very considerate. I wish more people were like her.”

 

Nat wiped the corner of one eye, trying to be surreptitious.

 

“I think that’s very sweet.” Alice managed.

 

Scott leaned in to speak to Benny. “If your friend ever needs – help. I know people who can help her. With anything. We used to work with Evocatus.”

Evocatus was born of a military chassis project and the EV0 AI project of Scott McGowan. He was a member of the Legion for many years, and served alongside many of the most decorated war heroes on Earth today. After one battle, he retired, saying that he needed to focus on helping his fellow AIs. He now works as a politician, on the front lines of the fight for AI rights.

 

“I’ll—let her know,” Benny blinked. “Thank you.”

 

“Any time. More wine?”

“Yes sir, thank you.”

 

Buster fidgeted, casting a concerned glance at Benny and then Alice.

 

There’s a pause where everyone eats in silence, Alice refilling drinks and offering her guests buns. The mood is slightly better after a few minutes, although the air is still tense. Nat came out of eir funk, once again playing the glittery peacemaker, and Buster and Scott resumed technical discussion.

 

Benny, however, remained cowed—head down, shoulders hunched, staring at the table, offering sparse commentary, mostly polite observations about how good the food was.

 

Scott stood. “Benny, why don’t you come for a walk with me? Get some air. Check out the property.”

“Yes sir,” Benny stood and followed Scott, seemingly relieved to have something to do.

 

The dining room was silent for a few moments as Scott led Benny away. Once their voices were distant enough, Nat turned to Alice, eyes blazing.

 

“He thinks you hate him!” Ey hissed.

 

Alice looked up from the sandwich she was making by ripping apart her bun and stuffing it with spaghetti and sauce. “What? Why? I was nice. I didn’t do anything!”

“You were about to launch into a tirade about how evil his boyfriend is! Do you think we couldn’t tell that?”

 

“Whoa, Nat—” Buster tried to cut in, but Nat silenced her with a glare.

 

“I wasn’t going to say anything!” Alice replied defensively, face flushed with wine. “I said it was nice. That’s all. I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t going to say anything. I’m not Scanner. I don’t peep in on other people’s personal business.”

“You do that constantly!” Nat’s voice spiked in pitch. “Alice I love you like the non-shitty mother I never had, but—”

 

“But what?” Alice shoots back. “Do I approve of Callister? No, I don’t. I don’t. But I wasn’t going to say anything, and I wouldn’t say anything, because when I was nineteen years old I had my dad try to ship me off to a facility because he didn’t like who I was or what I was doing and I’m never going to do that to anyone who looks up to me, even if they are making choices I don’t like!”

And then she bursts into over-emotional, too drunk tears.

 

“God fucking damn it Alice,” Nat burst into tears emself, “Callister is an abused child too!!!”

 

There was a long, miserable, soggy pause, before Alice asked: “W-What?”

 

“Just look,” Nat gesticulated, “all of the signs are there. He wants her approval, he’s not getting it, he’s desperate for affection, his behavior is erratic and confused. He’s just like us. Just like you and me. And yes he’s been an utter shit, but when Benny and I look at him, we see someone who is going through what we’ve been through. What we got away from.”

 

Alice shoves half of her spaghetti sandwich in her mouth and chews desolately, her face a blotchy mess. She finally swallows and mutters: “This is all Anathema’s fault.”

Nat snuffled and wiped eir face with the cloth napkin. “Five bucks says she was abused too,” ey replied quietly.

 

“Still a Villain, though.” Is all Alice can muster.

 

“Oh yeah,” Nat murmured, draining another wineglass.

 

Alice looks at Buster and Nat, face red and splotchy. “…More wine?”

Nat glanced left, then right, then scratched eir cheek. “Alice,” ey ventured cautiously, “you’ve been in a fairly groundbreaking mood lately. You, uh. You know I love you like a mother and would never do anything to harm you, right?”

 

Buster’s eyes widened. “Oh em gee Nat—”

 

“R-Right? I know both of those things,” Alice squinted.

“Would you like to try…” Nat searched for a euphemism, “a new thing?”

 

Alice sniffed and took another long drink of wine. “You know what? After tonight? Yeah. Whatever. Why not.”

Without another word, Nat pulled out a small, hand-folded paper packet, tore open the end, and tipped the powder inside into Alice’s wineglass.

 

“Nat!!” Buster squeaked.

 

“Shh,” Nat shushed, emptying the rest of the powder into eir own glass. “I brought E for you and Benny.”

 

“Shushing,” Buster squeaked, quieter.

 

Alice drained the wine glass and smiled at Buster and Nat. “Things can only get better from here, right?”

 

“Iunno,” Nat shrugged.

 

The older man led Benny out onto the balcony. It’s surprisingly… suburban. A couple of armchairs are facing out over the gardens, there’s a tricycle and a picnic blanket in the distance, and there’s a barbecue that someone has added mysterious, engine shaped augments to.

 

“You okay, bud?” Scott asked, grabbing an armchair.

“Yes sir!” Benny assured him, actual fear in his eyes. “I’m fine! I’m just shy. I apologize.”

 

“Hey, no problem. I get it. It’s intimidating. Big house, war heroes, terrible small talk…” Scott laughs. “You smoke?”

“N-no,” Benny lied poorly.

 

“It’s okay.” Scott produced a couple of narrow cigars and a lighter, winking. “Neither do I.” He handed one to Benny and lit his own.

Benny peered at the cigar, sniffing it and seeming impressed. He accepted the offer of a light, then, after a pause, stammered, “I’m sorry I’ve brought this conflict into your home, sir.”

 

Scott laughed. “What conflict? That my wife’s a total spaz who doesn’t know how to keep a dinner conversation going? Christ, that conflict’s been going on since well before I married her. I don’t know how you could possibly make it worse.”

“I can tell she’s angry with me. She has every right; I told Nat that she wouldn’t want to see me.”

 

Scott took a deep inhale on his cigar and puffed out a perfect ring. “Nah,” he finally said. “She’s mad, but not like you think. Definitely not at you.”

“What do you mean?” Benny asked. Then, “if… it’s all right for me to ask. Sir.”

 

“Scott.” Scott reminds him, smiling again. “Just Scott. Yeah, it’s alright for you to ask. It was kind of begging the question. She’s mad because my wife doesn’t like loose ends. She was hoping that there’d be a neat and tidy end to the Anathema thing. Callister… bothers her.” Scott took another puff. “But he bothers her as an abstract, not as a person. Every time they interact as people, she looks like an idiot because she can’t stop thinking of him as that abstract.” Scott shrugs. “She’ll get over it. And it has nothing to do with you.”

Benny rubbed one eye with his free hand. “Two weeks ago I was just a barista,” he murmured. “I thought my sister could do all the big world changing stuff and I could just… make drinks.”

 

“Y’know what the bitch of life is? Everything you do changes someone’s world. Does this Callister kid make you happy?”

Benny looked up at Scott, then down at the cigar, then shifted in his seat, then looked up at Scott again.

 

“…yeah.”

 

“You make him happy?”

“I’m— I mean—I seem to?”

 

“Well, hey, there you go. You’re a hero of that very small corner of the world. And who gives a shit about the rest, honestly. You got a guy, he’s happy, you’re happy. That’s great. And sure, he’s got baggage, but we all do. At least he’s upfront about it. Ain’t like he dropped 300k of credit card debt on you.”

Blink. “Did somebody do that to you, sir—Scott?”

 

Scott laughed. “You know why I married Alice? She’s honest. I mean, part of that is she’s just hideously incapable of telling a lie. But most of it is I can trust her with my life. I trust her to be a good mother. And she isn’t a fan of Gucci.”

“She… seems like a really good person, from everything I’ve seen,” Benny puffed on the cigar. “She didn’t have to come out for queer rights like that, but she looked so… proud to do it. And happy. I was so upset at the idea that someone like that might hate me.”

 

“She doesn’t hate you at all. She called you family. It means she likes you. She ain’t one for half measures like that. I’m sure we’ll walk back in and she’ll apologize and serve you some more spaghetti and it’ll be a nice, calm time.”

 

“Hi Scott!” Nat greeted Scott and Benny with wide, glittering, powerfully dilated eyes. “I got your wife super high!”

 

“I’m sorry you what -” Scott managed.

 

“I’m super high!” Alice spun on her chair to face Scott, one leg around each side of the chair’s back. “But it’s okay. We’ve had a great time, but now it’s time for a serious talk -”

She looked at Scott with dilated eyes.


“About Jesus Christ.”

And then she burst into laughter.

 

Benny looked at Buster, wild-eyed. “Please tell me ey brought drugs for us too.”

 

Buster wordlessly handed a small capsule to Benny.

 

“Thank goodness,” Benny breathed.

 

Nat giggled. “Scott I dunno if you—what’s your metabolism like?”

 

“It’s… good?” Scott replied, still bewildered as Alice had somehow managed to get off the chair and was now slinging both of her arms around his neck.


“Okay I should… be clearer,” Nat nodded sagely, “do you want drugs if so do you want para drugs or baseline drugs also sorry I didn’t check with you about the drugs first but to be honest I’m not very sorry.”

 

Scott considered for a moment. “Side effects?” He finally asked.

 

“Of Dazzlefly? Few!” Nat chirped. “Loss of focus, jaw clenching, erectile dysfunction for the duration. Some dehydration the day after, mild headaches. For the baseline one, that’s just MDMA, you can erowid that shit.”

 

“Pffft. You think I haven’t taken that before?”

“Hee hee hee.” Alice snickered into his neck. “That’s terrible. You shouldn’t do drugs.”

“Alice, you’re high right now. I think I’ll just babysit for tonight, but thanks.”

“Best cyborg dad,” Nat patted Scott’s cheek. “Best family. I’m sorry I yelled at you, General Mom.”

 

In the background, the twins clinked their wineglasses and downed both capsules.

 

“You have one prosthetic arm – and you put a human sheath over it – and they call you cyborg dad.” Scott mused, grabbing a seat and spinning a fork in his dinner. “They don’t call you billionaire dad, or genius dad.”

 

“To be fair, Scott,” Buster pointed out, “cyborgs are extremely cool.”

 

“I’ll show you putting a human sheath over something,” Nat giggled.

 

Things that Definitely Happened That Night

 

– Buster going over the technical specifications of the Cestus in excruciating detail at Scott, whether or not he is listening

– Benny making improbably good coffee for everyone and preparing cold brew for the next day

– Scott taking away Alice’s phone to keep her from tweeting, multiple times

– Nat and Alice petting each other’s faces while complimenting each other for a full hour

– Alice aggressively attempting to seduce Scott

– Alice loudly extolling Scott’s sexual prowess while Scott covers his face with both hands and tries not to laugh in the background

– “Fuck Bunker” mentioned

– Tour of Fuck Bunker

– Buster offering to spar with Alice

– Buster offering to spar with everyone

– Benny crying while everyone else pets him reassuringly

– Alice following through on the Jesus Talk thing

– Alice talking wistfully about Jesus like He’s a family friend

– Benny and Alice trading Wine Tips

– Alice and Benny having a Good Nice Talk About Callister and make nice

– Alice complaining about so many people being attracted to Callister

– Nat and Benny extolling Callister’s sexual prowess

– Scott taking pictures of Alice’s extremely red face

– Wrestling match over whether Scott has to delete those photos

– Alice informs everyone how much she loves them for like a half hour

– Sad Schuster Family Story Time

– Everybody cries and hugs

– Nat loudly demanding that “we talk about something nice for fuck’s sake”
– “Language!” gigglefit.

– Buster talking about that time she got nailed on a balcony while watching the Lunar Sunrise

– Buster talking about that time she got nailed in a relaxation pod

– Alice whining to Scott about how he “never takes me anywhere nice” with the obvious implication intact

– Someone says they’re hungry and Alice declares that she will cook the best meal EVER

– a small kitchen fire

– Burger Church delivery

 

Outreach: Compound Eyes

FLYING FORTRESS
THE CORE

Nat hovered gently into the entry hall of the Core, genuinely a bit nervous for the first time in a long time. Ey had spent plenty of time around the Sthenographer, considered the Oathkeeper to be a member of eir family… but ey’d never ever met the all-seeing Scanner, who was no doubt very well-acquainted with Nat.

 

Ey couldn’t help but startle a bit when the entry door slid shut behind em.

 

The Core was dark, lit only by screens on the walls. Some would flash on for only a second, showing something around the world and then going dark again. Others remained on, showing mundane scenes: a street, a park, a stretch of desert, a city block, a clothing boutique.

 

The circular room was choked with wires and cords.

And in the center of the room was Scanner.

 

She wasn’t what Nat had been expecting. There was a shock of bright pink hair poking out above her golden chassis, and there was more human than you would expect from her – half her face was dark skin and a curious dark eye.


“Nat?” Scanner asked, after a pause.

 

“Yeah, that’s me,” Nat blinked, not expecting a casual address, “you’re Scanner, right? It’s… good to finally meet you.”

 

“Oh!” Scanner said, clearly flustered. “Right, I’ve just been watching you, I mean, you’re interesting, so… sometimes I forget it’s a one way street. Hi. Hello. Um, Emi sent you, right?”

That drew a laugh out of the Damselfly, and ey relaxed a little. “I do aim for ‘interesting’! And yeah, she said that I should meet you and see this place before she actually started sending me here for briefings and research.”

 

“It’s not as exciting as you might think. Sure, top secret and all that, but the real magic happens right here.” Scanner taps the golden chassis on the right side of her face, lips quirking up in a smile. “I can see everything. Every corridor of the Fortress, every street of every city, every pocket holding a cell phone… The screens… reflect what I see, more than they feed me information.”

“Yeah, I, uh. I heard that you see everything,” Nat was clearly thinking of something in particular being seen. “Like everything everything.”

 

Scanner’s human eye glinted and her robotic eye made a soft whirr noise. “Everything.” She said, cheerfully. “Everything everything everything. Even that.”

“Oh,” Nat mulled this over for a moment, then asked, “so, uh, is there anything I should be doing differently?”

 

“Nope!” Scanner chirped cheerfully.

 

“No I mean,” Nat gestured with both hands, “I don’t always know where the cameras are, so like. I want to make sure I’m giving you the best angle you can get, right? If you gotta watch, the least I could do is make sure the production values are good.”

Scanner flushed red, and her human eye widened. “I didn’t mean -” she squeaked, clasping her mismatched hands over her mouth in horror. “I’m not watching ‘cause I get off on it, or anything! You don’t have to – you -”

 

Nat frowned. “You’re not? Why not?” Ey realized a moment later what ey had said and gasped. “Oh geez, do you not have a libido any more? I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that–that there’s something wrong with not getting off on it! Just that if you want to—”

 

“I mean, I don’t – I really have those – I’m watching out of I mean, curiosity, but not curiosity like that -” Scanner looked up, with what was left of her face flushed red. “New topic?”

“I’m confused about how you are feeling about watching my sex life and would like clarification before we change the topic, please,” Nat held up a finger.

 

“Think about it like this. It’s data. It’s like – I’ve never gone deep sea whaling. That’s pretty interesting! But even if I had legs and a chassis that wouldn’t rust, I probably wouldn’t go. It’s interesting to watch on a screen, but anything further than that? No thank you. Also, I kind of have a…” She hesitated here. “Boyfriend? So that… complicates things further.”

“Right but,” Nat giggled, “I’m not trying to fuck you, I just want to know whether you’d like to provide feedback so you get a more interesting show.”

 

Scanner twisted her lips in thought. “Y’know the training room? Most cameras on the Fortress are in there, for obvious reasons. So, there’d be the most angles. Hypothetically. I’m not allowed to actually provide advice on these things.”

Nat beamed. “I’ll bring Vin there,” ey chirped. “Thanks for the advice! Okay, now I’m ready for that topic change.”

 

“Thank you,” Scanner said, slightly relieved. “Anyways, Emi likes to come in here to watch the world, when she can. See what looks unusual, what looks wrong, what looks… in need of aid. Sometimes that is obvious. Other times, like with Twin Falls, we can be fooled. You’ll need a keen eye and a good gut sense of when something looks wrong.”

“Well,” Nat offered a small shrug, “Emi says that my social intuition for crowds is the best she’s ever seen. Which I guess makes sense, I’ve been doing clubs ever since I ran away from home.”

 

Scanner nods. “That’s good. In that case, I’ll be feeding you data, and you get to parse it.” Pause. “What are they like? Clubs, I mean.”

“Noisy,” Nat smiled, “energetic. Colorful. They tend to be very different things for different people. For me, they’re a high energy kind of home. Some folks can’t even be in one without having a panic attack.”

 

“I’ve only seen them through cell phones and security cameras.” Scanner admitted. “I don’t think I could ever feel like I was at home in one… But it would have been nice to experience before taking up my vigil.”

“Are you kidding?” Nat grinned. “We could turn this room into a bangin’ club! Okay look– how many people have Core access, or have the means to be granted temporary core access?”

 

“The Generals, Black Ops agents, Tabitha, Helen Havelock, and Scott McGowan.” Scanner said. “That’s, what, a dozen people, max?” She still sounded nervous.

 

“Hmm,” Nat tapped eir lips. “Hold up, though, didn’t Corey get to come in here at some point?”

 

“He’s… helping me with some things, yes.” Scanner said, smiling despite herself. “I don’t know how long it’ll last.”

“Yeah sure but what I’m hearing,” Nat said in that elevator pitch tone Scanner had seen em take with other people, “what I’m hearing, is that we can grant temporary and provisional Core access to other people if there’s a good reason for it.”

 

“What’s the good reason you have in mind? A dance party?” Scanner smiled at her own joke.

 

“Yes,” Nat said, completely serious.

 

Scanner laughed incredulously. “Alright, you know what? If you can convince a General or Tabitha to clear it, sure, we’ll have a dance party in the Core.” Her voice was so heavy with disbelief that she clearly didn’t see that ever happening.

A slow grin spread across Nat’s face. “A general, you say? Any General?”

 

“Sure, any General can grant that. Just a matter of convincing them.” Scanner didn’t need to add the ‘and you probably won’t be able to’; that came through in her tone.

 

Nat already had eir phone out, which was connected to the Flying Fortress’s intranet even in the Core’s shielded chamber. Ey tapped an icon that just said ‘General Mom’, and a photo of Alice in the middle of eating a spaghetti sandwich popped up.

 

Nat tapped speakerphone, then made a finger-to-lips don’t say anything gesture.

 

The phone rang a few times.

 

“General McGowan.” Came the familiar voice of Alice. “Hi, Nat.”

“Hi Alice,” Nat singsonged. “Are you super busy? This isn’t important but I wanted to chat for a minute.”

 

There’s the sound of exertion, something swinging and a solid thud. “I’m fine. I have you on my comm. What can I help you with?”

“I just wanted to share the cool news! I met Scanner for the first time today, in person!”

 

“That’s great! I hope you two are getting along!” Alice cheerily said over the sound of someone shouting as they fell from a high distance.

 

“Oh sure, it was great!” Nat said, then affected a tone of wistful sadness, “well… except… no, it’s nothing. It– it was really good to meet her.”

 

“Something sounds the matter.” Alice said, a touch sternly. “Come on, you can tell me.”

“It’s just… I was talking about how much I love dance clubs, and dance parties, and do you know what she said to me, and it just… broke my heart?”

 

“What did she say?” Alice was truly invested in this tale now.

 

“She’d never been to one. Not a club, not a dance party, nothing. She always wondered what they were like, but… but she’d,” Nat took a deep breath and let it out, as if trying to keep from getting too emotional. “I just couldn’t even imagine. You know? I spend so much time immersed in sound and light, feeling the beat coursing through me, and to live life never experiencing that…”

 

“Oh, gosh, you know -” Alice was clearly prying some sort of grate free, judging by the noise filtering through the comm. “I don’t think that’s a universal experience. I mean, gosh, I don’t know. Clubs can be a bit much. Gosh knows I find them a little intimidating. I can’t imagine how Scanner would cope. She’s so used to the Core!”

“Scanner is receiving data all the time, from so many different places! I don’t think she knows how to be overwhelmed,” Nat pointed out. “It’s already got to be really chaotic for her; if anything, a dance party would be a harmony of light and noise. And you should have seen her face, Alice. Wistful. Resigned. Broke my heart, honestly.”

 

Ey squinted up at Scanner, dropping the facade for a moment, and mouthed ‘Gosh knows?’

 

Scanner made a jerk off motion in return, rolling her eyes.

 

“So what exactly are you asking me for?” Alice asked, a bit suspiciously. “A dance party in the Core?”

Nat paused. “Oh my gosh, Alice, you’re a genius,” ey breathed. “A dance party in the Core! It’s got everything we’d need! You’re brilliant!”

 

“I’m… brilliant?” Alice asked.


“Oh no.” Scanner mouthed.


“A genius?” Alice giggled.

 

“Well if nothing else,” Nat continued in an impressed tone, “you have amazing ideas. Can you imagine it? Lights Show spinning, Vin glowsticking it up, patterns going across the monitors, and the coolest agents in the Legion having a great time.”

 

“It’d have to be secure, though. No unauthorized agents… Corey is the only Freelancer allowed. No drugs or alcohol.”

“Oh my gosh Alice you’re the best. I’m so glad you thought of this,” Nat tittered.

 

“I’m so glad you think so. But this can’t be a regular thing. I can authorize it one time, maybe twice, tops.”

“Okay, thanks mom, talk to you soon have fun catching the bad guys! Love you!”

 

“I will! Love you too, Nat!”

Scanner looked equal parts horrified and impressed.

 

Nat ended the call, pocketed eir phone, and stretched out into a luxurious reclining pose in midair. “There’s your dance party,” ey gloated. “Got any other requests?”

 

Outreach: The Way Forward

THE MCGOWAN MANSION

CHICAGO

 

“So,” Alice finished her story. “It’s over. Anathema– Hyacinth is in custody. Emi will be okay, with rehab and time. Everyone is safe. She’s depowered, or so they say. It’s over.”

“I guess so,” Dr. Meda offered one of the slight smiles with which Alice had grown familiar over months. “How do you feel, then?”

 

Alice was relaxed during their sessions, these days. Her long legs were hanging over one side of the armchair, and she reclined against the other armrest. “Guilty. Angry. Sad. Relieved. It’s a jumble.”

“That’s a normal reaction,” Nami replied. She was, as always, seated straight upright on the easy chair opposite Alice. She never seemed to relax, but she never seemed tense either. “At our last session, when you thought that Hyacinth might be dead, your thoughts seemed much more up in the air. You didn’t seem to understand how you were feeling.”

 

“She hates me.” Alice mused. “I don’t know why, but she hates me with the intensity of a sun.”

“But what does that have to do with your feelings about her?”

 

“I didn’t even know she existed. But she just hated me. For decades. Twenty or thirty years. I… That’s not right, is it? For someone to get so angry?”

“You’ve been a hero for a while, Alice; you know that not all people govern their action by what is right. Why hold on to this?”

 

“…I don’t know. I don’t know how she keeps getting into my head like this.”

“You say that as though she’s making a decision to get in your head. She’s not, Alice,” Meda fixed multihued eyes on her, “you’re putting her there.”

 

“This isn’t my fault.” Alice grumbled. “What am I supposed to do? Stop thinking about her? Let the Freelancers handle it like the professionals they are?”

 

“I’m not assigning fault,” Meda reassured, “but Hyacinth isn’t my patient. You are. She has no real power over you, and our job… here, in this moment, in this session… is to help you live your life. Is to help you be happy and healthy.”

 

“What if the purpose of my life isn’t to be happy and healthy? What if it’s to be the Oathkeeper?”

“Then it’s your responsibility to be happy and healthy. If the world is in your hands, they must be steady hands.”

 

“You think so? Taking care of myself always feels like a luxury.”

“I know. But it’s not. It’s your duty. Your distress could put others in danger, and your peace of mind could save lives.”

 

Alice groans and slouches over the back of the chair. “When do you get to retire from being the Oathkeeper?” she jokes.

 

“Well,” Nami smiled again, “that’s a good question, isn’t it? When do you get to retire?”

 

“I… kind of thought I’d just keep going until I die in battle.”

“Rather sad for your children, don’t you think?”

 

“I’m going to outlive them anyways. I’m nineteen, Nami. I’ve been nineteen for over twenty years now. I just… I don’t see any other option. I don’t age. How can I grow old and retire?”

“Good question. Maybe you can’t. Maybe it’s something to look into. But it’s alright to think about your future as a person, not just as the Oathkeeper.”

 

“I guess you’re right.” Alice said. “And things are… going well. Peaceful. You know? We have new blood coming into the Legion. I think things might be okay.”

“Inroads are being forged, too,” Nami pointed out, “why, I hear that the Legion and the Freelancers are starting to share medical staff.”

 

“Gosh,” Alice feigns surprise. “Maybe we can trust the Freelancers to do things without it ending in a massacre.”

“Well.” Wow, there’s a lot packed into that word. Fortunately, Alice probably isn’t able to notice any of it! “This was a very good session, Alice. Thank you for taking the time.”

 

“Thank you. I mean that. I… I think it’s really helping.”

“That’s the entire reason I’m here. To help you find ways to help yourself. So. Here is your homework. Buy a journal, please, or find one that you already own. Every time you find yourself thinking about Hyacinth, write down something that you love about one of the people in your life. Think about that instead. Can you do that for me?”

 

“Yes, Nami. I will.” Alice smiles serenely. “Can I get you some tea, maybe, before you go? A snack for the road?”

“Are you trying to turn this into a social call, Mrs. McGowan?” Nami smiled… a bit impishly? “Yes, I would love some black tea.”

 

Outreach: Interview with the Red Knight

FREELANCER INTAKE OFFICE

ARCHAVEN

 

The Freelancer intake office was all straight lines and cutting edge efficiency. They preferred shades of blue and grey out here in the waiting room. A variety of magazines were on display, everything from Good Housekeeping to Infinity Now to National Geographic.

 

It’d be a lie to say that Callister did not deliberate over his clothing decisions. Should he be formal and come in a suit? That’s what all the job interview websites said. Personally, Callister thought that was trying too hard. Should he come in torn and ripped goth rocker? He frowned at that, both liking and hating that idea. That tried too hard too, to say “whatever, I don’t care.”

 

In the end, Callister wore a white shirt, ironed, but not tucked, black jeans and motorcycle boots. His hair was pulled back into a low bun, and he did not leave out the eyeliner. They asked for Callister Rayne, after all.

 

He sat at the office, manspreading like a jerk because he could, and with one arm slung around the back of the chair next to him, poked about on his phone with the spare hand.

 

The secretary, a thin man with a small smile and bags under his eyes, only made him wait for a couple of minutes. “Mr. Rayne? You want to go through these doors, third room on the left. Mr. Cheney will see you now.”

Callister looked up, considered the man with blood red eyes and nodded. He pulled himself up, ignoring the tug on the legs of the jeans that fit so well not six months ago and were now getting too short in the hem. Nineteen and still growing. Fuck. He made his way as directed, and entered the door with knock.

 

Michael Cheney clearly did not use this as his main office – he had travelled to come here to meet Callister. That was interesting. The man looked out of place in the average office – he was clearly used to having more room on his desk, a larger chair. Still, though, he managed to look comfortable and at ease. Callister hadn’t expected the public face of the Freelancers to come meet him.

“Mr. Rayne. Or should I call you Callister? Whatever you’re more comfortable with.”

Callister considered the man behind the desk. No, he didn’t expect Michael Cheney, but then again, perhaps he should have when the invitation came straight from the Wasteland.  “Callister’s fine. Mister Rayne is my dad.” Maybe. Well, it was probably true, wherever he was. Not to mention “Mister Rayne” made it sound like he was at the Principal’s office.

 

He stepped into the office, and stood in front of the desk, body language screaming insouciance as he stuck one hand into a front pocket. “Mr. Cheney.” He nodded.

 

“I’m going to be honest with you right off the bat, kid. If you were walking in here as some hero off the street with the same resume, I’d be handing you a crap deal. But you have certain advantages, and I think we both know what they are. So I’m offering you something real sweet. Good bennies, high pay, time off, full access to your mother and a say in her care… Oh, and it’d piss all the right people off if you signed up.”

Callister snorted slightly, started to smile, then stopped. “I thought the Legion had my mother.” He frowned.

 

“The Legion and the Freelancers came to an agreement that since Hyacinth Mills had escaped their custody once before, we would get a shot at it.” Cheney says, still smiling. “It’s completely amicable.

 

Callister took a seat, wholly without invitation. He leaned back, ankle at his knee. Finally he said, “And she is secure? Visiting rights for my grandmother if she wants them?”

“She is in a facility staffed entirely by Nulls and with several other security measures I cannot disclose due to a serious NDA. And sure, bring the whole family in, that’s fine. We will ask you… any visitors, though. “

 

Callister knew he wasn’t too smart, but even he could tell when a deal was too sweet. “What’s the catch? This is all too good a deal.”


“We want you to talk to her.” Cheney admitted immediately, without a hint of shame or hesitation. “Hyacinth Mills, I mean. Anathema. Though we’ll be happy to help facilitating your relationship with your grandmother, get her the best medical care. Mills has… said concerning things about… cosmic matters. We want more information on that.”

Well shit. Someone actually listened to her rants. Worse, they believed her.

 

Callister frowned, leaning forward, looking into Cheney’s eyes.

 

“Huh. You’re not under her influence at least.”

“Nope. Like I said, I’ll be honest. This comes from above me. We’re pieces in some game of three dimensional chess, kid, I’ve just learned to roll with it.”

The Red Knight leaned back in his chair. He thought he’d put this whole avatar business behind him. That people were actually taking Anathema seriously concerned him. Did they want one to oppose McGowan?

 

Callister couldn’t see the game, could barely see the pieces, yet alone check the scoreboard. He felt like a pawn once more, and this time he couldn’t see the hand that reached out to move him. Cheney’s superiors. That was rumoured to be Adam Nova, right? What was he in this game? The invitation came from the Wasteland, and he was no errand boy. And here was Cheney.

 

One thing was certain though, things were moving so that he could be kept in the game.

 

And that in itself was challenge enough.

 

“All right. I’ll sign up. But I want a lawyer to look at the contract before I put ink to it.” That was Sin’s influence.

“Would you like us to provide one for you, or would you prefer to find your own?”

“I got a few names I can call on.”

 

“You got a one week window to look it over and negotiate. After that, offer closes.”

“Understood.”

 

“Thanks, Callister. We’ll hear back from you soon. Smart choice, today.” Cheney stood and gestured for Callister to leave, all smiles.

 

Outreach: Visiting Hours

Archaven High Security Detention Center

[CONFIDENTIAL]

[CONFIDENTIAL]

 

Callister had to go through multiple checks – retinal scan, fingerprint checks, security questions, and more. It took half an hour. It would have taken longer if not for the Nulls. Every faculty member, guard, and employee at the prison was a Null — including the janitors.

 

Eventually, he was cleared, and taken to see his mother.

 

Anathema’s cell was more comfortable than Callister expected it to be. A bare floor, a simple bed, a toilet, a few books on a single shelf. The woman sat, head bowed in thought. She didn’t look up as her son entered.

 

Her eyes were grey. Not purple, grey.

Callister paused before entering the cell. He stood, staring into the distance for a moment, hands in pockets. Was he gathering his thoughts? Steeling himself? Or was he just trying to recall his shopping list.

 

Whatever he was doing, he kept his expression carefully neutral. He knew he was entering enemy territory the moment he stepped into the facility.

 

Then he rapped his knuckles on the cell door, a polite, perfunctory gesture.

 

“Mother. It’s Callister. May I enter?”

 

She scoffed bitterly. “And if I say no?”

“Then we will talk through the door. I know you enjoy talking through doors.”

 

Hyacinth sat still for a moment, then nodded assent. “Enter.” And then when he was in her sight, she sneered. “Traitor. Bastard. Heretic.”

“You say things like that as if you think they have any effect on me.” Callister just spent a week with his grandmother. He knew he did the right thing.

 

“They should. I never should have let you leave my sight. You weak willed child, you just bend at the first influence you meet.” Her eyes blazed with hatred.

 

Callister smiled, but it was a hollow thing. “If I were that, I’d still be your little pawn, pushed around your stupid little board. Then again, perhaps you’re the weak one. You couldn’t take me.”

 

“No.” she said, quietly. “I couldn’t. But you need me, don’t you? Or you wouldn’t be here.”

Callister shrugged broad shoulders. “I asked Grandmother if she wanted to visit. She has yet to answer.” He leveled his red eyes at her. Before his Emergence, his own eyes were hazel. He wondered vaguely at the father he never met. “So you’ve been talking about that Avatar nonsense again.”

 

“Nonsense.” she chuckled. “Is that why you’re here? To insult the truth I have divined through fasting and prayer? You could have done that over the phone, Cally.”

That was a name he hadn’t heard in… a long time.

 

“You named me after your nemesis. Use the whole name or don’t call me anything at all.” He folded his arms, leant his back against the wall. “So what’s that truth you tried to press on me. Divine beings? Celestial spirits possessing people?”

 

“I tried to tell you, so many times. How many times did I try to clue you in on the plan? And then you stab me in the back, throw me in a pit, and expect me to tell you these sacred truths? Why should I?”

“Because who else will listen to you?”

 

That shook her. She paused, lowered her head. “…These are not truths that came easily to me, Callister. I fasted, I stayed away from pleasures of the flesh. I denied myself water and sleep. And I could… touch the fabric of the cosmos, part it to see the secrets beneath. I saw into the eyes of God.”

Callister’s relationship with faith had always been shaky. Unsure. He once thought that he could parrot his mother, be the son his mother wanted and faith would come to him. He went to mass, still, but believe? That was always too far way to grasp. In this, though, he believed that his mother believed.

 

“And what did you see?”

 

“Champions of… His will. His will must be fractured, and He demands war. I saw amethyst eyes in a warrior-king’s face, and his reign of a thousand years. I saw the golden zealot who rose to challenge him. A dance that has happened a hundred thousand times, across all of eternity.”

Callister frowned. “And you wanted me to take up the Avatar of Faith to be my enemy?”

 

“I wanted to end the war. Imagine how we could rule together. We could take out the Legion, the Freelancers, the unbelievers. It would be a glorious rule!”

“You said He wanted a war. You thought you could defy him by ruling together in peace?”

 

He was getting off target, but he needed to find out the depth of this insanity.

 

Anathema smiled. “There’s a new Avatar, isn’t there? Someone replaced me. I was arrogant for going against God, and He punished me. But you need me, Callister.”

“Do I? I helped defeat you. I can help defeat this one.”

 

“And the next one? And the next? The one after that? They’ll keep springing up, one after the other. Do you intend to die on the hunt to keep stamping them out?”

“And you have the key to stop this from happening?”

 

“You don’t expect me to just give it away if I do, do you?”

“And what do you want.” Callister tilted his head up.

 

“The company of my son and mother. To know that you’re taken care of. I’d like to meet this…” Her lips twisted for a moment. “Boy you’re seeing.”

Callister considered this. “Grandmother will speak for herself when she can. And I will ask Benjamin if he will visit. My access to this facility has already been guaranteed.”

 

“Good.” Hyacinth looked pleased. “Don’t tarry too long, Callister.”

Callister pushed himself from the wall. “If Grandmother will not come, I will not force her.”

 

“We all must make compromises.” Anathema scowled. “Especially during this trying time.”

 

Outreach: Thomson’s Lightbulb

NATIONAL FAMILY BANK

NAPERVILLE, ILLINOIS

 

“All right, everybody on the ground!” The woman holding a pistol to the security guard’s head had an authoritative voice, to be sure. “Nobody has to die today, just be cool and give us everything you got on hand!”

 

Two men moved to at her chin-jabbing command, one collecting valuables from the patrons and one collecting money from the tellers.

 

“Are you insane?” The branch manager’s face was crimson with rage. “This is a mob bank! You clowns are dead!”

 

The woman laughed, then replied: “What can I say? I’m a risk taker!”

 

Outside the bank, a tiny (and very sketchy looking) blonde peered over the top of a car – If they were taking everything, then there’d be more than one trip. Valuables are heavy, and so is money. Surprisingly. Or maybe it’s just greed and sins that weigh a lot. Madison was not a bishop. Madison was mostly sure she was not allowed to be a bishop but whatever. Point is: She was trying to spot where they were going.

 

It only took a few minutes for the robbers to get what they wanted, but the cavalry arrived first. Not the cops, oddly enough, but three ominous-looking black sedans with tinted “fuck everything.” windows, which disgorged a dozen black-clad armed thugs, who immediately took up positions behind their cars, pistols aimed at the bank door.

 

Okay. Now that- that’s a problem. She can do a lot of neat things, but she didn’t happen to carry around the appropriate type of electromagnet to not be shot. Mostly because doing so would crush her. Do banks even have rear doors? She should go find out. Skulking around the cars was not the best place to be, right now.

 

The bank building was clearly old as all get-out, a monolith of aging brick and carved stone. No rear door was plainly visible, only a night drop panel embedded in the wall around the corner.

 

Well that’s a fire hazard. Okay. So. She kind of needs to get inside. Preferably where people won’t immediately see and shoot at her. Being a legionnaire did not mean she consented to people shooting at her.

 

The tense moment continued for a little longer, when the woman in charge, holding a pair of canvas bags slung over one shoulder, emerged. Almost in a single action, all of the black-clad enforcers half-emptied their magazines at her.

 

“Ha ha!” She said. “Goddamn that never stops being scary!”

 

Dozens of bullets were hovering just in front of her skin, all over her body. She took a step forward and the bullets moved with her, then took a step to the side and they all resumed their flight path, caroming off the metal door.

 

There’s a yell of pain from one of the patrons in the bank. A ricochet. An average looking man, holds his leg, tears welling up in his eyes. But the problem isn’t that he’s bleeding. The color of his blood is silver, welling from wound. “Oh god, what the… oh god, oh god, oh god.” The silver blood pools around him, then seems to flow back towards the man, diving into the wound. “OH god WHAT THE FUCK.”

 

“Boss, there’s somebody– somethin’–” One of the henchmen looked on in horror.

 

“Just get the fuck out here, Tort!” The woman shouted back. “We don’t have time to watch every goddamn emergence!”

 

The silver blood rips the bullet out of the man, then seals the hole, but doesn’t seem to be done. Now the man is crying silver tears, bleeding the silver liquid from his ears, eyes, and mouth. Then he starts vomiting, and more silver pours from the man’s mouth in wet, splashing heaves.

“Jesus christ,” the woman murmurs.

 

Then the silver MOVES, large, animated spikes lunge at Tort, the woman, and anyone who has a gun.

“Mother of God!” She shouts.

 

“Oh shit!” ‘Tort’ throws his hex shield up just in time, the spikes caroming off of it. The other henchmen gets hit squarely and is thrown against the wall, but seems weirdly fine.

 

For the woman, the spikes just… halt. Right in front of her.

 

“Fuck’s sake,” the woman growled, reaching forward and hauling the thrown henchman to his feet. “Tortoise, get your ass over here. I don’t wanna be anywhere near that freaky thing. You okay, A?”

 

The henchman holding up a domed shield of energy hexagons sighed, then leaned his shoulder against the edge of the shield and started shoving it toward the door.

 

“Wuh?” The dazed henchman replied.

 

“Great. Let’s go get shot.”

 

Madison considers this situation. And considers it some more. Annnnd. She’s gonna go find the nearest unattended vehicle and see if she can’t fritz its computer-chip-thingy and make it accelerate very quickly at people she would like to hit with cars. Topically? That is everyone else. Except the silver-spewing man. That man scares her. It wouldn’t work with everything, so she needed to find one of the newer-ish models. Maybe a 2020.

 

Like that red thing. Right over there. Oooh. It was even angled funny. Perfect. Hopefully it didn’t make that loud ass–

 

BANG!

 

God damn it

 

With a noisy screech, the car’s tires spun wildly and it launched forward at top speed, two men in black tumbling ass over teakettle overtop it before landing hard on the pavement.

 

As if cued, the other enforcers started shooting at the robbers, bullets caroming off the two henchmen and stopping in front of their leader. Then the car happened.

 

“Oh no–” the henchman behind Tortoise managed to squeak before the car collided with the hex shield, collapsing most of its front inward and throwing the shielded henchman backward, striking the other henchman and sending both of them sailing through the air.

 

That was the best thing I’ve ever seen, Madison decides.

 

The woman with the bags stared for a moment, then burst into peals of laughter. “Oh holy shit that was amazing, you guys!” She jogged toward where the henchmen had landed, the bullets that had been waiting in front of her peppering the wall behind.

 

The silver stopped spewing from the man, and he collapsed on the floor back in the bank. The silver wraps around him, carefully, like coddling a newborn baby. He staggers up when more bullets start careening around, a dark silver shield spreads out, catching some of the ricochets with wet little splashes. “Oh god… what… w-who’s talking… what the fuck is going on….”

 

The silver suited man, now, spreads little tendrils, steadying his body, as he stumbles forward trying to figure out what was going on. “Someone, h-help, there’s…. Something in my head…”

 

“You a superhero?” The branch manager demanded. “In case you hadn’t noticed, there was just a fuckin bank robbery here. You wanna maybe do somethin’ about that?”

 

Outside, the robbers had reached their getaway car. Tortoise dropped his shield and dove into the back seat, and the other dizzied henchman stumbled into the passenger seat.

 

The woman in charge turned, grinned, and saluted. “It’s been real fun, guys,” she quipped, “but you should tell your boss that you don’t try to ice Erin Thomson and get away with it clean. Ta!”

 

She got into the driver’s seat, turned the key, and was subject to the second most appalling anticlimax of her life. Click click click click. The engine didn’t turn over.

 

“Oh you’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Erin muttered, “after I did the speech and everything.”

 

A tendril comes off from the silver suited man, and a mouth forms in the metal looking liquid. The voice buzzes and clicks, like a bad radio reception, and sounds wholly inhuman. I am helping my host, silence smelly organ of too much cholesterol and not enough exercise. We shall do as we decide.”

 

That said, the tendril retracts, and the silver man starts staggering towards where the robbers were leaving. “H-hey, guys? Guys? C-can you surrender? The voice… in my head is telling me to do…. Things.”

 

Bang

 

Bang

 

Bang!

 

BANG!

 

The moment the man in the silver suit opened the front door to the bank, about half of the enforcers immediately saw a hero and started shooting him.

 

The robbers, still ensconced in their getaway vehicle, were arguing with each other and did not hear what the man said.

 

Cue terrified screaming from the man in the silver suit. Automatic fire pours into the liquid metal suit, and then cue pained screaming as well, along with creative uses of the F word.

 

However, the liquid metal didn’t seem to like that. Long, sinuous tendrils shot out at the goons who were shooting, becoming serrated and spiked. Jaws with far too many fangs and sucking, hungry maws went after them, first the guns, then at the men, if they continued to fight. One man rose into the air, silver liquid grabbing onto his arms, and legs, and PULLING them apart with a wet popping sound. Another tendril dove straight into a man’s open mouth, and scarlet/silver spikes erupted from inside the man, before withdrawing from the now pincushioned from the inside, corpse. Another two tendrils with jaws ripped out one man’s throat, continuing to chew through the flesh and bone. A fourth tendril became razor edged, whipping side to side, and one enforcer fell to his knees, desperately trying to keep his intestines inside until the serrated blade came down, crushing and slicing him in a messy half. A fifth tendril takes the shape of a fire axe, and just… starts. Chopping. Everything.

 

Anyone who wasn’t shooting, wasn’t targeted. The man encased in the liquid, fell to one knee, however, breathing heavily. “H-hey, hey! Do-don’t… don’- AH. AHHH.” Bullets started plopping out of the man’s body, as he yelled, trying to support himself.

 

“Oh jesus christ, boss. BOSS.”

“What? I’m trying– oh shit. Fuck. Everybody out of the car and into the alley. Fuck. Christ. What even–“

 

Cue screeching tires, screaming metal and – probably? Crying mob enforcers, as not one, not two or three, but four cars come screaming down the road in a line, side-by-side. From somewhere down the street, a faint voice seems to be encouraging the family members to “eat a diiiiiiiiick!”

 

The robbers scrambled out of their getaway car. The woman took a position directly in front of Tortoise, shielding him with her body while his shield was down. The other one did what he wanted to be a cool looking vault over the car’s hood but ended up mostly being a scramble around the car’s front. They did their damnedest to slip into a nearby alley unnoticed while silver death assaulted the mobsters.

 

The tendrils pause in their silver death, as the cars come down the way. They retract at insane speed, and make sure to get their host, whoever he is, out of the way, retreating from the oncoming ten thousand pounds of steel pain in high speed form. All the while, the host is like “AAAH WHAT’S GOING ON OW OW OW OW OW FUUUUUCK EVERYTHIING.”

 

The line of cars slammed into one side of the Family’s auto blockade, sending several enforcers flying and smearing a few of them against the side of their own cars. “I would’ve moved but that’s just me.” It was starting to smell like a charnel house around here, which is why the three bank robbers were real grateful to be halfway up the opposite building’s fire escape in a nearby alley.

 

The silver blood… thing, whatever it was, didn’t think it was a good idea to retreat back into the bank. The bank branch manager was a jerk to their host. And the host was injured, and whimpering. Instead, the blood had climbed up the side of the bank’s outside wall.

 

“Ow… it hurts so much… what…. Oh….. i…  i don’t know what we should…. Do…. uhm…. The… the guys that stole th-the money? D-do you know… where they are?” The silver man thing seems to be talking to himself, and whatever the small tentacles are start looking around, blank silver ends seeming to be searching for something. A few more quiet whimpers from the host.

 

The tendrils can probably see a blonde woman in street clothes rushing into the alley, now that the gangsters-slash-enforcers were decidedly distracted. Look at that guy, for example. He’s definitely distracted.

 

There they were. Almost to the top of the next building over, climbing up the fire escape and apparently planning to… run across the roof? It wasn’t clear.

 

The tendrils seem to be debating something, as the man they’re connected to continues to cry a little, trying to make sense of what’s going on. Then they retract back into the mass of silver around the man, who blinks. Features start appearing on the man’s face, definitive eyes, and a mouth, perhaps?

 

“Oh, tha- that’s bet-better. Le-lets… yeah…. We- we can try to stop th- WAAAAHHHH!” The tendrils push suddenly off the roof, with a long, long jump, the host screaming the entire way, flailing. “OH GOD HELP I’M GONNA DIIIIE!” “You’re not going to die, we have you, dear host.”  The current trajectory will take him to the building that the robbers were going up.

 

The woman crested the top of the building right around the time that the silver-suited hero landed… right in front of her. Her eyes went wide and she reared back a little.

 

“Hey there, uhm, shiny boy,” she stammered, “I, ah, don’t suppose we can, like. Talk this out?”

 

Her two henchmen peered up from below, looking distinctly unhappy.

 

And from the under side of the fire escape, is coming a grumpy, grumpy looking blonde. Clang-thud-clang-thud-clang-thud. She falters a little as she spots Silver Man. Oh. Okay. Why not.

 

Everyone kind of looked at each other awkwardly for a few moments. The robbers didn’t bother drawing their guns. This didn’t seem like the kind of situation where that’d help.

 

Silver Man, who seems to be hyperventilating, and shaky, and more than a little terrified of what’s going on. “L-look. I- Ij ust…. I just want to…. I don’t… y-yes. NO! No we’re not going to… do that!” One of the tendrils looks oddly forlorn, retracting back into the silver body. The eyes seems to focus back on the woman. “O-okay. Yes…. yeah…. C-can t-talk this out. Yes…. sorry. They’re…. Can you hear them? They’re being… very l-loud.” He falters for a moment, hands on his knees, breathing heavily.

 

“Damn, dude, you, uh…” Erin looked around, brow creased, as her henchmen cautiously crept up the rest of the way, keeping a wary eye on the blonde woman. “You want me to call an ambulance or someshit? You look kinda messed up.”

 

“M-maybe I…. it really, really hurts, you know… g-getting shot. Ah…. hnn…. But… c-could you g-guys stop… uh…. I d-don’t w-want to hurt…. Y-you stole uh… uh mob… money…. Oh…. oh shit. They’re gonna totally want to kill me now…” Silver blinked, straightened up, his voice constricting with fear.

 

“They already tried, buddy,” Erin laughed a little, “and it didn’t work! You don’t have to worry about those chumps. I dunno why you don’t want me to take their money, though. You may have noticed that they’re a bunch of assholes.”

 

“Real assholes,” Tortoise agreed.

 

“Kinda dicks,” Madison nodded.

 

“Yeah,” the thinner man whose name hadn’t yet been said chimed in so he wasn’t left out. “Dicks and assholes.”

 

Madison awkward-shoulder pats him. It’s okay guy. You’re just a little slower to agree. “..So uh. Are we gonna stand here until they show up with more guns or can we at least walk while we talk?”

 

Erin turned to look at the blonde, only just realizing that there was an additional character present. “Who are you?”

 

“..I’m me. Who are you.”

 

Scoff. “I gave a whole big speech! I was loud!”

 

“You know what else is really loud? Gunfire. You know what causes Tinnitus? Also gunfire.”

 

“Aight, you know what? You’re right. Let’s walk and talk. I’m not gonna lie to you and say I had a plan for getting off this roof safely, though. I was gonna drive off but my piece of shit car died. Can you walk, Mister, uh, Silvertongue?”

 

Mr. Silver seems to be getting his breath back, and stands back up. A little out of shape, a little thin, even through the liquid silver, the ‘eyes’ of the face seem to look at Erin and Madison and the group. “Y-yeah…. Okay…. What? Oh. I think they heard more cars coming from…. Uh… that way. W-we… yeah… okay. Should go.” One of the tendrils points to where the other black sedans came from, and looks to Erin and Madison.

 

“Well. Go on, planner-of-robberies. Before the guns happen again.” Madison shrugs. “And Recharge is fine. It’s what most people call me.” It sounds like a legion codename, which probably makes it a little weird that she’s totally encouraging theft. You also probably haven’t heard of her.

 

“Aight, well,” Erin sighs, leading the group across the roof. “That’s Achilles, that’s the Tortoise, and I’m Erin the Arrow. There’s a fourth member of our crew, sort of, but you can’t see ’em. My original plan was just gonna be to go to the edge, push my boys off, and then take a flying leap myself. Zeno don’t let me kill nobody, so if I’m the one who does the pushing, we all land safe no matter what. I mean I guess I could still do that…”

 

Silver looks wobbly, as he follows. “T-they say that they can get me down, but th-they don’t want to… oh. Oh, okay.” He looks back at them. “We can catch you guys, too, if that w-works…” He sounds very much dazed, but going along with the plan. Two long tendrils exude from his body and gently push the man off the building. More tentacles form, and carry him down, like an octopus climbing a sheer wall. “O-okay?” Silver calls up to them.

“christ.”

 

“I can’t wait to watch this.” She sounds a little too enthusiastic about the idea of folks gettin’ pushed off buildings.

 

“Hey, Mercury Man, don’t put yourself out none for us. Stand back and watch.”

 

She gave Tortoise a quick shove, and he tumbled over the side of the building with a yell. Just as he should have hit the ground, something seemed to buoy him, depositing the man gently on his feet.

 

“Alley-oop, Akky,” Erin grinned and pushed the other henchman. He, too, floated to a safe landing easily.

 

Erin turned to Madison. “You want a ride from Zeno too, blondie?”

 

“I ain’t real keen on the idea’a somethin’ I can’t see touchin’ me, but as it happens, I’m less keen on gettin’ shot. So, yeah. I guess.” She climbed the rest of the fire escape, stood on the roof and really hoped Erin wasn’t lying.

 

“Attagirl.” The gangster pushed Madison hard on the back, and she tripped on the edge of the roof and tumbled end-over-end… and then it felt like giant, soft, invisible hands were cradling her, turning her upright, gently setting her down. A moment later, Erin floated onto her feet next to her.

 

“Cool, eh?” She smirked.

 

Madison’s face said, quite clearly, that she did not like what just happened. “…Sssure.”

 

“That’s my guardian angel,” Erin’s voice didn’t sound 100% appreciative for some reason.

 

Silver just kind of stared dazedly at the group. “That’s…. Odd. Powers are… odd…. Wait, what? No, w-we’re not climbing back up to t-test it out…..”

 

“All right, we’re not outta hot water yet,” Erin glanced out the mouth of the alley in which they now stood, “and we need working transportation. It’s clear right now, but it won’t be for long. The Family’s been recruiting. Damn, I wish I knew who the Underground contact around here was.”

 

“If you can get me to your car, I can get goin’ again,” Madison notes. She sounded utterly, a thousand percent confident about it, too.

 

“Oh… oh god. Wait, what’s the Underground?” Silver blinked. “I really don’t want to get shot more….” One of the tendrils gently patted the silver clad man on the head, clearly trying to be soothing.

 

“I don’t mind getting shot, but I sure as shit don’t wanna get caught,” Erin grimaced. “Aight. I never been that fast at hotwiring, so let’s– ooh.”

 

Erin’s eyes lit on a van across the street. It was some kind of service vehicle, and on the side it read ‘Thomson’s Lighting Inc’ in a badly designed logo.

 

“That’s one of the vans for the company the Family inherited from my old man!” She exclaimed. “I couldn’t script something more poetic! Let’s go steal it.”

 

“Okay.” Madison stuffed her hands in her pockets. “What could possibly go wrong?”

 

“Uhm. Bad guys in there? W-wait, uhm…. Maybe more guns… uhh…. Bombs?” Silver didn’t realize that Madison was PROBABLY joking. He kinda half walks half staggers after the group, the tendrils helping balance him every so often. “You want help walkin’?” “T-think I’m okay… j-just really…. Hurts…” “You let me know if that changes.”

 

“..How are we gonna steal it,” she finally asked Erin.

 

“Well you was makin’ noises like you can hotwire a car, right?” Erin raised an eyebrow at Madison. So we real polite like ask Dan the Silver Goo Man here to jimmy the lock, you jumpstart it, bob’s your uncle. Yeah? We’ll go in first in case it’s dangerous.”

 

“Bob killed my uncle, you sonofabitch.” Madison thinks for a moment, then nods. “Yeah. I can probably start it.”

 

“I-its Ted. M-my name’s Ted.” said Ted the Silver Goo Man. “O-okay, jimmy the lock… you guys can do that, right? Oh. Open it… without bre- no, no tearing i-it of the hinges.” A tendril extends from the forearm of Ted as they get close to the car. “D-do I go n-now or do y-you want to check it out?” The exuded tendril looks at the main body of the silver man, then looks dejected. “S-shush, I’m trying t-to be careful.”

 

“All right, Paradox Crew, let’s shield our new buddies,” the three robbers took positions in front of the two squishier people. “Do it up, Silverted.”

 

The little tendril shoots into the lock, splatting against it, and less than a second later, there’s a click, and the door opens. “Daaamn, nice!” Silverted looks at the little tendril. “O-okay, that’s pretty cool. G-good job.”

 

The robbery crew’s display proved to be unnecessary: no one was inside the van.

 

“Nice nice nice,” Erin crawled into the van, between the seats, and into the cargo compartment. “Yup! We’re clear!”

 

She opened the van’s rear door and poked her head up over it. “C’mon in, and let’s hoof it!”

 

Madison clambers into the driver’s seat. “..y’gonna wanna lean away. Maybe cover yer eyes,” she says. Despite that, not much happens for a moment… then, with a brilliant shower of hissing and sparks, the van’s engine rumbles to life. Seems fine. Totally legit. She shifts gears a couple times. “Yep. Okay. Didn’t break nothin’.”

 

Silverted gets in, as well. Looking overly concerned. “W-we’re really… stealing a van. Oh. Oh right, they’re… dicks, yeah?” He shakes his head.

 

“Well, Ted. Theodore? Teddy. Well, Teddy, our choices are either A: Steal this van. Or B: You and I stand around and get shot. I mean there’s probably a few other options there? Buuut you know. Let’s like. Not find out?” She smiles at him, almost roguishly. “And how ‘bout you, Robs-A-Bank? You got a location in mind or should I just drive really fast in any direction?”

 

Teddy just kind of meeps and curls up a little in the chair. Though he does nod a little. “K-kind of just hoping thi-this is all a nightmare.”

 

“A nightmare? With a gal like me around? I’m hurt. Seriously though just breathe. You’ll get through this.

 

“Don’t get too twisted up. The Family took this company from my old man, and after he died and I kinda.. Well okay, after Zeno fucked up my chances of becoming a capo, they tried to ice me. Far’s I’m concerned, they owe me way the fuck more than a van. And yeah, head toward Route 34 and take it West. I got an old hidey-hole that’ll work for now.”

 

“Alllllrighty.” Madison drives like she talks. That is to say, she takes a lot of shortcuts, and goes a little faster than is really probably safe. She handles the van well, at least, and hasn’t hit anyone by the time they get to Route 34, so it’s probably not all bad.

 

The Paradox crew, for their part, seemed to think this style of driving was normal, which was a likely sign that anybody who saw the van assumed it was being driven by one of its normal occupants. Soon they were coasting along route 34, and Erin once again got talkative, as seemed to be her way.

 

“Okay, blondie, – “Why did you ask my name if you’re just gonna call me blond- HEY, USE YOUR BLINKER, ASSHOLE!– ahem go on?””–okay, Recharge. That’s a real Legion-y name. You a cape? Am I in even more trouble?”

 

Madison stares blankly at Erin. “…Why would you be in trouble? All I saw was some thugs trying to shake down some innocent folks and then I got them out of there with the help from a man made of silver and stabbing.”

 

“… Oh… oh god. We did that to a bunch of -people-.” Silverted scrunches up into an even smaller ball.

 

“Hey, if it helps at all? You did not do anything until them until they tried to kill you. “truth.” And frankly, I don’t think I’d even say it’s your fault. That – silver.. Stuff. It kinda seems to do what it thinks is best. You are not to blame. Like I said, just breathe, Teddy. We’ll get you to – .. this place, and then we’ll see what we can do for ya, okay?”

 

“People’s emergences kill folks all the time,” Erin said, sounding a tiny bit bitter, “or so I hear. “Yeah. They do.” Usually it’s innocent people. In your case, it was a bunch of mobsters. Public goddamn service, if you ask me.”

 

Ted just kind of nods, silently. “I-its saying th-that they were dicks. Th-they d-don’t like that they w-were using guns in such a l-large crowd.”

 

“Legit!” Erin grinned. “Ours were just for show. We wasn’t gonna shoot nobody. We don’t hafta.”

 

Ted nods again. “T-that’s good to know. Uhm. Oh crap. D-did you guys t-take out the security cameras? C-cause they’re gonna see who I am….” Ted asks worriedly.

 

“Uhm,” said Erin.

 

“Oh,” says Ted, very, very, very quietly. “I… I gotta get home after w-we stop.”

 

“Ugh,” Erin let her head roll back. “Lemme guess. You got a family and shit.”

 

Ted nods. “Girlfriend. An-and my parents, but they’re in another state. I… oh.” He takes a deep breath. The silver liquid around him ripples like water after a stone disturbs it. “I… I dunno. I gotta tell them t-to be careful. I think… a-and move? Y-yeah?… I really didn’t watch enough Hero and Cop shows before… all this.”

 

“Well, I guess there are a couple ways you can play this,” Erin counted on her fingers. “One? You join the Legion. They’ll protect your family and girlfriend, and help you move your stuff, hone your powers. Two? You and your people come lay low with us for a little while until you figure out what to do with ’em. Three? You just wade into Chicago and kill as many mobsters as you can, fast enough that they’re too busy dodging you to do anything about your family.”

 

“Four, you talk to the Freelancers. You’ll probably end up getting more-or-less conscripted, so I don’t recommend that one. And fiiiive. … I tap some folks. See what I can do for ya.”

 

Ted pauses. One free tendril seems to be patting comforting him, the rest of them have retracted back into that silver sheen of his. “I-I don’t think I’m cut out to be a hero… s-so option one and four a-are probably out. Uhm.”

 

He baps the tendril with one hand. “No, we’re not going to do option three, th-that’d make us… uh, a supervillain. Or something.”

 

“Option one  isn’t really out. We need a support staff like anyone else.”

 

He looks at Erin, and Madison. “I don’t know. I wa-was just trying to deposit my freakin’ paycheck… “ He takes another deep breath. “Who -what would we need to do to… uhm, tap? Would we owe you anything? I-i’ve got… like… maybe a little money, but that’s it.”

 

“Um. No. You wouldn’t owe me nothin’. Basically, it’d just be seein’ if I got any favors that could help you relocate real fast.”

 

“You got a raw deal, dude,” Erin chimed in, “the Paradox crew’ll help ya if we can. We’re honorable thieves. Right guys?”

 

“Sure, Erin,” Tortoise said. Achilles just shrugged and nodded.

 

“Zeno’s in too, they’ll help anybody. So to speak.”

 

“Okay.” He takes another deep breath, and with more conviction he says, “Okay. Yeah. Lets do that. If anyone has a phone, I’ll call my girlfriend…. We’ll get this done. Th-thanks.” The sheen of silver seems to be fading, as well. It seems be drawn into the man’s eyes, leaving an average, sandy brown haired looking man who’s a little short and looks to be in his early thirties. Oh, and his clothes are punctured with bullet holes. A lot of them. But the wounds are covered in the same silver substance that his body was covered in just a moment ago.

 

“Oh.. Oh. That was… kinda cool.” He looks at his hand, which is now normal looking.

 

“Gratz, my man. You’re a para now.”

 

Madison eyes him critically – then hands him her phone. “Call away.”

 

Dial dial dial… “Hi… honey… I-I know you’re at work…. Uhm. Oh. You saw the news?” Gulp. “There’s TV coverage of a silver guy on Youtube?” GULP.  “Did I deposit the paycheck? Uhhh.” GULP.

 

“Uhmm… uh… see…. That was… uh… me…” He cringes, as over the phone, there’s extremely excited female shouting. “Uhm. Yeah. Listen… yep. Yep. Yep.”

 

Teddy looks at them. “Well. She’s getting a bag together. She’s… been a paranormal nerd for years. So…. she’s super excited. Yay?” He chuckles, weakly, trying to figure things out.

 

“Ah geez. It’ll be okay, buddy, just uh. Hang in there.” Pat pat.

 

“Seeeee? Everything’s fine. And also no one’s house is on fire. Everybody wins!”