After a lot of years, we finally go to Empire City, New York in the Justice Wing universe. For those who’ve wondered where the alleged Marvel influences on Justice Wing are… well, here you go.
For the record, this is a complete Novella. So… budget at least some time for reading it. And despite the header image? Amulet is only mentioned in the story. She doesn’t appear.
The following takes place between Justice Wing: Emergence
and Justice Wing: Halcyon Days
Kidds’ Cove Island
East Wyandanch, New York
From Colin Church’s point of view, it was like he was flying, unencumbered and free. If he didn’t feel the vibrations of the Falchion in flight, he’d almost think it were a dream.
Of course, dreams didn’t come with tactical data and targeting reticles. This did. In this case, he was getting streams of data about what was clearly a camouflaged airfield. “Well lookee lookee here,” he said. He always noticed the helmet echo, even though everyone else claimed they didn’t notice it after a while. “That looks like a quaint little bed and breakfast, doesn’t it? And here I thought the Deurcant family didn’t open their private island up to the public.”
“Near as we can tell? The Deurcants don’t even know it’s there. Be careful with the incendiaries — Kidds’ Cove Island’s got the largest white oak stand in North America.” Alexander ‘Andy’ Pope was one of Church’s CnC team. Technically he was their network and software guy, but the Cavalry support crew wore a lot of hats.
“Now that’s a claim to fame. Of course, so’s the pirate treasure thing. Launch overwatch and send out a couple unmanned. Stealth’s looking good. How confident are we that’s SCYLLA?”
“Launching two seekers and three high-spies from… mark. Eight minutes back of you. Confidence is high.”
“Eight minutes? What, are you saving fuel?”
“Sonic booms make the Mayor’s office unhappy, Colin. You know that.”
“I make the Mayor’s office unhappy six times a week.” Church checked the readings. “I dated a Deurcant when I was… mm. Seventeen? A while back. Nice girl. Limber.”
“How old was she at the time?”
“I’m gonna say… early thirties? Hard to say. So what do we think they have down there?”
“At least two of their Airnoughts. Reasonable amount of high energy ackack. Some artillery. Missiles. Maybe thirty or forty troops?”
“Most of that needs circuitry. If we hit’m with targeted EMP burst ordinance, that might reduce’m to throwing rocks at me.”
“If you scuff the paint Ruby’ll kill you.”
“We all know that’s how I’m gonna die, Andy. Who cares when?”
“All right. Lemme crunch some numbers — see if I can estimate null-ray target points.”
“You do that. And what is this ‘null ray’ and ‘seeker’ crap. I know pilot banter, Andy, but you’re just getting weirder.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Almost by definition, but not this time.” Church zoomed in the video feed on the airfield, looking for movement.
“You’re sitting in the belly of a fighter jet with an F-15’s profile, more or less. It’s white with red accents. It converts into a giant robot mode for ground action. And you’re targeting electromagnetic pulse weapons designed to immobilize electronics and machinery. At this rate, we should adjust your external speakers to Chris Latta’s voice and be done with it.”
“You’re saying words, and I think they’re English, but they don’t mean a thing. Is this some nerd reference? You know what? Forget that. Just tell me once and for all how you get ‘Andy’ out of ‘Alexander?’”
“It’s a mystery for the ages, Boss. Three minutes.”
“A little mystery goes way too far, somet— hang on.” Church locked on movement, zooming again. Five SCYLLA troopers, carrying a large sealed case. Detectors ran the normal sweep. “Got movement — guys with a box. Trying to see—“
There was a high pitched two-tone whine. “Oh, shit,” Andy said. “Positive for ionizing radiation. We don’t have configuration specs yet, but so far we’re consistent on an implosive device.”
“They have a nuclear bomb off Long Island? ETA on unmanned?”
“Screw the mayor. Go supersonic. I’m going in, Andy.”
“I don’t have null ray target info yet!”
“Yeah, sometimes you have to trust eye and let fly.” The thrum of the Falchion’s engines increased at Church’s mental command, and he brought his weapons array online. He scattered a series of target dots for the EMP ordinance, including one not far from where those troopers were. He wasn’t going to trust a nuke would be affected by the pulse, but maybe they’d get lucky.”
There was a different alert sound. “Target locks — they’ve penetrated the stealth, Colin?”
“Deploying flares and chaff,” Church said, smoothly — he felt the ‘thumps’ of the different ECM dropping. “ECM in four… three… two… fox-three!”
The ECM were less missiles and more silver pods, but the effect was the same. They arced out, sweeping over the field and detonating with bursts. There was a haze in Church’s display for a few seconds as the overlapping pulses spread, and a bunch of detected electricals died.
“Launches!” Andy was shouting. He got excited.
“I’m not seeing them,” Church said. “Ready Chevalier in five… four… three…”
“Inbound on — Boss, they’re targeting the seekers! Seekers down! Seekers down!”
“Chevalier!” Church was rocketing straight for the airfield. There was a sudden lurch and air-bite as the Falchion seemed to split down the middle, mechanisms reversing polarity and systems deploying. Arms and legs and what looked like a helmeted head snapped out, and the jet afterburners — now part of a rear winged pack — fired off like jumpjets, the Falchion’s gyros automatically tipping the now-robotic form back to slow even as Church fired off multiple energy pulses across the the field. This was suppressive fire, causing explosions and fusing soil and tarmac into glass, to drive SCYLLA soldiers to cover.
There was always a moment of disorientation, but it had passed by the time the Falchion’s boots hit the tarmac. From his point of view, Church was moving and seeing as though the Falchion was his body. He aimed the Falchion’s gauntleted arms, firing a series of lower intensity pulses from the three projectors built into the outer edges — where they hit the SCYLLA soldiers they caused arcs of electricity and a ‘fumph’ of energy, overloading their nervous systems without really hurting them. It wasn’t too far off of what the EMPs had done to some of the base’s defenses.
But not enough. The sad truth about EMP weapons were they were at best limited. His were targeted and more potent than most, able to penetrate close-range hardened electricals and slag them — but close-range meant close range. Plenty of the SCYLLA soldiers still had energy rifles and were clearly willing to use them. Church ‘felt’ the polarized skin of the Falchion bounce those.
“Give me a cone target solution,” Church snapped. “And were the unmanneds over water when they splashed?”
“Confirmed. Seekers went down in water, no casualties except Thundercracker, Skywarp, and Dirge. Targeting solution… now!”
“Damn it, Andy — if you keep naming the unmanneds you’re going to have to feed them.” The solution looked — to Church’s view — like a head-up on his helmet showing him where to aim. He pointed his right gauntlet, which deployed a bell and pulled the waldos in. A sonic cannon burst waves over a pack of the soldiers, putting them down. “Status of overwatch?”
“Five minutes — that one can’t do hypersonic!”
“I’m aware — I was there when I designed them. Rate of fire’s increasing! Get more unmanned in the tubes!”
“I’ll do it but if you can’t take out their launchers they’re just gonna be more write-offs, Boss. Holy — Boss! On your six!”
Church spun, the robot-form surprisingly limber. There was a projector that had been set up. He saw a power signature on it. “Flip polarity!” Church shouted—
The projector fired — it was a gold surge of energy with a bluish haze, and it hit the Falchion dead center-of-mass. Church’s displays went haywire, static filling his vision and a surge of pain feeding back. “Rescue! Rescue! Eject on—“
The displays went dead, and Church felt the disorienting ‘lurch’ of being in his own hardsuit-clad body at the center of the capsule buried within the Falchion. It was dark except for emergency lights. He grabbed the manual lever and pulled—
The lever refused to pull. Fantastic. He hit the manual displays, not having a lot of hope—
Those systems were hardened enough, it seemed. Three screens came online in the capsule, right in his field of vision. Two side view, one forward. The SCYLLA troops scrambling — more energy shots hitting the Falchion, the thumps hitting harder now. He could see they were setting up more artillery. This time missile based.
“Oh crap. Andy? Andy report! Andy I’m dead-stick and can’t pop. Andy!”
There was a blur on the starboard feed, and a blue-grey-and-gold figure in combat gear slammed into a pack of SCYLLA soldiers, throwing his arms to either side and nailing them with shock hammers. “You are all under arrest!” he heard him shout, the newcomer’s voice amplified enough that Church could hear him even buried in the Falchion. He did a forward roll out of view, coming up on the forward camera, and brought his arm up in front of himself, plates fanning out and energizing before SCYLLA fired their tech bazooka. It splashed off the newcomer’s defense instead of splitting open the Falchion and killing Church.
“I repeat!” the newcomer shouted. “This is the Lieutenant! By the Authority of Justice Wing and the State of New York you are all under arrest! Drop your weapons, lie on your stomachs and put your hands over your heads and you will not be harmed!”
Church closed his eyes for a moment. Damn it. Now he owed McCallister and Justice Wing.
He opened his eyes back up. The Lieutenant was in the middle of another pack of soldiers, leading them away from the Falchion. Jason ‘Jayce’ McCallister had been a career cop in Monument City, fighting a war against Boss Salvatore Delgato and his own corrupt police leadership over the course of decades. Then, on the eve of mandatory retirement, McCallister was nearly killed saving Delgato’s daughter Victoria. The aged gangster was nearly dead of cancer, but had found a miracle cure — only his debt to McCallister and the betrayal of one of his capos made Delgato give it to McCallister instead, healing his shattered body, restoring his youth and raising him to the peak of human potential all at once. Using weapons that Delgato had been stockpiling against parahuman heroes, McCallister protected Victoria Delgato until Justice Wing picked them up. Since then, he’d become an iconic hero — the perfect, incorruptible cop. The ideal of what the police should be.
Church wasn’t a fan. And now the Lieutenant was saving him and taking out his enemies. “Andy?” he asked. “Andy, please copy. Andy, I need resupply. Andy?” Church took a deep breath. “Great, the only way I can get back in this is if the Falchion manages a—“
‘System reset’ suddenly flashed on all the screens, and Church felt a wrenching and some pain as he was re-tied into the Falchion’s systems. “All right!” he shouted — he knew he’d built this thing to last. “Just need power up and—“
‘RESCUE-eject’ flashed over his field of vision, as the systems interpreted the last command in their memory.
“No!” Church shouted. “Abort! Abort! Abo—“
There was a fhwump and the pain of being severed from the Falchion again as Church and the capsule he was locked in were forceably ejected from the Falchion, which snapped open to accommodate, then locked a blast door over the internals. The capsule then shuddered and split into three pieces and Church’s hardsuit came online, the jumpjets automatically kicking in and angling him to land on his feet even as the heads-up began targeting around him.
Church overrode the landing, using the jumpjets to almost skim along the ground sideways, firing multiple stun-pulses off his hardsuit’s gauntlets, peppering the SCYLLA soldiers who’d been running for the Lieutenant. He snapped his multi-carbine out, hitting ground and setting for concussive shot, which he began peppering into the better armored soldiers.
“Cavalier!” the Lieutenant announced over his PA, mid-spin-kick before he smashed his force-hammer mode gauntlet into a heavy trooper in front of him. “Good to see you!”
“Always a pleasure, Lieutenant,” Church answered, his own voice amplified. It was a bald-faced lie, but you had to at least be polite for the first fifteen minutes after a guy saved your life. That was in Emily Post’s Guide to Superheroic Etiquette. “Sorry for the delay — you know how glitches can be!”
“Just glad to give you the pause that refreshes!” The Lieutenant dove for another, even as Church sprayed stunners at the soldiers behind the super-officer.
“If you’re going to reference Coca-Cola, you’d better have brought Coca-Cola,” Church muttered, firing again and kicking up with his jumpjets, bouncing high and launching several tear gas grenades in a spread from his hardsuit’s integrated backpack. “Because now I want Coca-Cola!”
Despite his annoyance, Church shook the Lieutenant’s hand when all the SCYLLA soldiers were down and bound. “Glad you were passing by,” Church said. “What brought you to beautiful Long Island, anyway? A little fishing off Deurcant Bay?”
“Actually, I was literally coming to see you, Cavalier,” the Lieutenant said, shaking back with a grin. Most of his face and head were covered with his blue and gold helmet, the police badge logo across the forehead, but not his mouth — normally, anyway.
“I’m pretty sure I didn’t have you on the calendar. I should probably fire my secretary.”
“This was a drop-in and hope. I’m just glad I picked up your firefight.”
“Hey — I was close to reset. I would have been fine.”
“I’m certain you would have been.” Damn it. It sounded like he meant it.
“So what can I do for you.”
“Well… could you set up a meeting for me? With Empire City’s movers and shakers, I mean. Including you, obviously.”
Church paused. “Captains of industry?” he asked. “Local politicians?”
“Heroes. You know. Doc Astonishing. Shooting Star. Foolha—“
“Yeah, I coulda guessed. Sure. That’s the least I could do after you pulled my bacon out of the fire.”
“Great!” He grinned again. “I see the DETAILS launch — want to go meet them with me?”
“You called it in? I mean, nah. You called it in. I’m going to prep the Falchion for return and repair.”
“Right!” The Lieutenant tossed a salute that Church couldn’t even return ironically right now.
Church walked over to the downed robot-jet. There were long scorch marks all along its chest, deformations from impacts and energy shot… it was a mess, in other words.
“Jesus,” he muttered. “Ruby is gonna kill me.” He tapped the side of his helmet. “Andy? Status of the Falchion?”
“Well, she’s not happy but she’s ready for reconnect. She can go airborne and she should be able to execute Knight-Cav mode and fly back. I would not recommend breaking four hundred MPH, based on these diagnostics. Oh! And your overwatch is in place!”
“Is it? Great. You’re a god damned peach.” Church took a deep breath. “All right, McCallister’s got the actual wrapup under control. We might as well reconnect. ETA on the replacement capsule?”
There was a pause.
“I probably should have launched that, right?”
Church closed his eyes. This was not a banner day for the Cavalier.
Millard Fillmore High School
East Northlyn, Borough of Northlyn
Empire City, New York
Mierra Mccall paused. She was fifteen years old, deep reddish brown skin and dark brown eyes under chaotic hair she kept under a kerchief whenever they’d let her. She was fifteen and running out the clock not only on the school day but on her Sophomore year at Fillmore. Like usual she was in old black and green flannel, nearly black jeans, and a black t-shirt. It wasn’t so much a look as ‘incredibly fast.’ Besides, Mierra wasn’t the kind of kid who had a ‘look.’ To have a look, first people had to want to look at you, and Mierra could blend into a crowd in an empty field. Five two, rail thin and lanky — and just wanting not to be late.
“Mierra!” she heard again. She was in the middle of the crowded Year Ten corridor, backpack over her shoulder, while students rushed past her to homeroom for end of the day announcements.
“What?” she shouted back over the din, looking around. She didn’t know all that many people despite going to school with them since she was in kindergarten, but in another sense she ‘knew’ them all, so it was harder to pick out individual friends even with her weird-ass powers. At least, when things were this crazy.
There. It was Smits. She was grinning, weaving around people and running to where Mierra was moving to the side of the corridor next to the lockers — getting out of the way of traffic. “What’re you doing after school?” Smits asked, out of breath.
Mierra snorted. “Nothin’,” she said. Which wasn’t really true. She’d have a few hours before anyone was home — plenty of time to change and go running around the rooftops and side streets. Still, she wasn’t telling Smits that.
“Cool! Change’a plans. Morty had to go home ‘cause he threw up in Western Civ so he’s not here which means there’s an open spot for the Roosevelt competition.”
“The Roo— no way!” Mierra had wanted an in on the Roosevelt competition. It was like an away game for nerds like her — competitive coding, robotics, stuff like that. They wouldn’t know what the challenge was until they were there, and then they’d have an hour to build a simple robot, code it, test it, and see if it could meet the challenge. Roosevelt was a particularly big deal because individuals could get scholarship money, and Mierra was gonna need that if she was going anywhere at all after high school.
But she hadn’t made the team, because there’d been too many days with too many disasters and so she’d had to keep on the run and missed too many prelims. If they needed a coder—
“Oh yeah,” Smits said. “This is a big one. I mean, we have alternates but they suck and they know it, and Dawson said you could come if they didn’t mind and they wanted to do pit and cleanup anyway so you have to come!”
“Oh — oh God! Yes! Yes I’ll—”
It was like a sudden needle-scratch on a record across her back — just like always. The sudden rush of fear, the sense of the unknown, the fast, the moving — stranger danger.
“—I’ll try,” she said, fluidly. I’ve gotta make sure it’s okay. But I’ll try!”
Smits stared, then shrugged. “Whatever — just be there. Dawson won’t hold the bus for you. Be there by 3:15 or—
“Yeah — yeah, right. I’ll try! Gotta bounce!”
“Me too — be there! Bus 19!” Smits booked it for her own homeroom.
Mierra ran to the door of S9 — Rowland’s classroom. Her homeroom. “Mister Rowland!” she shouted. “I gotta go grab my stuff from gym and then gotta book! You need me here or can I—“
Rowland looked tired. He always looked tired. He was like fifty and had no hair and his eyes were usually pretty red. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. “I’ll put you down as here. Go.”
“Thanks!” Mierra turned and tore for the side door. That one wasn’t alarmed. She—
Mierra shivered, breaking through the door and then running faster than a normal person could run for the alcove — every few hundred feet there were alcoves with fire doors inside them. Dark, out of view, kinda perfect. She got to one, swinging around and pressing her back against the wall so no one passing by could see. The fire door was solid metal with no window. Private, thank God.
Mierra skinned out of her jeans and pulled both shirts off in one movement. She’d already toed-off her sneakers and socks. She unzipped the special compartment in her bookbag, pulling out the brown tights. Even as she pulled them out, she felt a rush through her blood and pain in her bones as her body twisted and elongated. Muscle spreading and sliding under her skin, even as tufts of brown patchy fur spread out as well. She pulled the tights on up her rapidly pelt-covered legs, then pulled the rest up her body. She tossed her head down, then flipped it back, her hair now a good yard longer, straight, and dark brown instead of near-black. Her face was now decidedly inhuman and already covered with the lighter brown fur that had grown up on her whole body. She stretched the top of the unitard up, pulling the straps — it was a sleeveless tank model over her arms up onto her shoulders even as she managed to thread her new five-foot tail through the hole in the back. She pulled out the two heavy copper-colored bracers she had stored in the bottom and pulled them on — heart racing harder as whatever was setting off her predator ping got closer or more dangerous—
Mierra took a deep breath, zipped up the bag after making sure her street clothes were all in it, and then spun out of the alcove and sprang straight up the seven stories to the roof of Millard Fillmore High. She did a somersault at the top, hooking her clawed feet on the edge of the roof and pulling herself up, then stowing the bag up there before she ran in the direction her nervous system was screaming for her to avoid.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Hit a few muggers or thugs hard, then back up in time to make the bus! She could do that!
Her senses were sharpening with each stride. She always had at least some connection to the ‘Rodent Morphology Field’ as she sometimes nicknamed her powers, but in transforming into her full empowered form that connection grew exponentially stronger. It wasn’t an instantaneous process — she was her full height, shape and furriness already, but her body was still adapting and changing on a biomolecular level. That meant her sense of her surroundings, the ‘stranger danger’ and ‘predator ping’ abilities that played over her nervous system — all of that was coming into focus much more clearly. She could feel… yes, there were a couple of vans on the streets along Edison and Burke — they didn’t belong here… there was something… many somethings on the hunt—
As her senses expanded and her spatial understanding grew, she felt the front van’s doors burst open, and her predator ping went nuts! She could hear screams, and the twist of metal—
Mierra swore under her breath. All right, maybe she wasn’t going to make the competition. The predator was East, across two local streets and the thruway — she had to get over all of them without dodging traffic, causing an accident, or losing the element of surprise. She ran to the North side of Fillmore’s roof instead, diving off and spreading her arms and legs, the hazy outline of a flying squirrel’s canopy-like patagium visible connecting wrists to ankles and sweeping down either side.
Catching the wind she glided over the roof of next-door P.S. #178, killing the patigium and tucking into a roll to hit that roof running — accelerating to sixty from one end to the other before springing over the parking lot and Donizetti avenue, arcing a couple hundred feet up before angling down towards a brick apartment building—
Mierra hit the balcony of one of the apartments, springing straight up. The high rise was twenty-six stories, so she had to grab the railing of one of the higher apartments, and pull herself up into another spring, then another, but she hit the roof, turning and running hard Eastward toward the highway.
There was another highrise — this one thirty-seven stories — right on Baychester street between Mierra and her target. Hitting the edge of the roof she sprang again, curling in air, drawing on the comfortable balance of any number of jumping rodents and the sheer proportional jumping height of the Kangaroo Rat — the animal with the longest jump in proportion to its height in all the animal kingdom…
Mierra hit the roof of the Baychester high rise, rolling into a run. She sped up to close to a hundred miles an hour and sprang once more, her patagium forming as she glided, letting the height, wind, and velocity carry her over Baychester and I-95, angling high as she swooped towards Edison and Burke. Her senses were fully extended, now — she could feel the ebb and flow of the people of East Northlyn below her — feel the ripples of panic flowing through them like beacons, with the predator fairly screaming into her senses as she got closer—
There! She saw him! Blue and armored, nine feet tall, with a three-foot-thick blue metallic tail, reticulated and moving forward over the villain’s head, its end a stylized beastal head with a long gout of flame shooting out of it and causing a thankfully empty minivan to explode. Dragontail! Like she needed that today!
“Rodent!” the massive menace bellowed, all too audibly to Mierra despite the distance. “Where are you, y’frickin’ mouse? We have a score to settle!”
Seven times Rodent had fought Dragontail. Seven times she’d beaten him. How did the idiot think they had a score to settle? At 7-0 it’s not like there was some question! And who kept rearming him? As she glided closer she could feel the psychic ‘pings’ of his goons — a good twelve of them, and she could see the gleam of chrome in their hands — high tech rifles of some sort. Who was supplying him? It’s not like he’d have credit with the underworld supply companies at this point—
It didn’t matter. He and these hooligans weren’t just threatening people. They were looking for Mierra, and if they didn’t get her, they’d just get more and more destructive and innocent people would get hurt.
Mierra banked, letting herself roll left, even as she trimmed her patagium to speed her descent. She didn’t want to give them a nice, fat aerial target, and she didn’t dare hit the thugs with her full velocity — too much chance of causing permanent injury. As she sped up, she twisted her forearms outward several times, the movement causing the mechanism in her bracers to click through the loaded quills in her quillthrowers. Different payloads felt different as they clicked through, letting her prep and load specific ones…
She was on a crash course for the Edison Street Deli’s roof. She dropped the patagium entirely, twisting in air, and with specific flexes of her forearms she fired two, three, four, five, six times—
Quills fired at high velocity — Mierra compensating for wind and momentum unconsciously. Each had a bead partway up with two compounds loaded into them, separated by chambers designed to crack on impact—
Mierra got off seven shots total before she hit the deli roof rolling. All seven ‘thwicked’ into the goons’ weapons — high tech energy rifles of some sort — with enough force to crack the inner beads and blend the payloads. The beads burst into intense light and heat, enough to distort the metal and blind the bad guys, even though the flares were each only momentary. She heard them screaming — felt their ducking away and rolling, throwing their weapons down even though she couldn’t see them.
Mierra bounced up, hitting the wall of the bank next door to the Deli and springing out directly at the soldiers. Dragontail was up the street, not having time to turn around as the she dove straight for his men — clicking through quills again and letting fly with several that had been coated with powerful paralytic sedatives. Nothing that caused any kind of permanent harm, but it would lock their muscles and knock them out — she could see that though they were well armored, they had their lower jaws exposed. Perfect targets which she hit unerringly—
Mierra landed hands first in the middle of the pack, doing a handspring that made her arm muscles complains but scattered them even more even as she did a split-kick that knocked two aside. Doing a fast roll in the air as she bounced up, Mierra slapped her tail against the metal arm of an overhead streetlight, curling the prehensile tail around it, redirecting her momentum to spin her around and kick off the light and — releasing the pole — twist her body through the web of high tension power lines to land on top of the telephone pole it was attached to. “Geez, Dragontail!” she shouted. “If you want me to show up on time, send a girl a note first, huh? You can’t expect me to just drop everything when we aren’t even going steady!” As she crouched she twisted her forearms again, locking in the right quills–
“Get her!” That was one of the rent-a-hoods. Mierra barely registered him, firing off four fast quill shots from each bracer. These were impact quills, their pre-set beads causing concussive bursts as they hit the ground around the ones still standing. Mierra dove off the pole straight into them, kicking and spinning like a breakdancer, knocking them aside like tenpins.
“Rodent!” Dragontail howled, his reticulated namesake arcing up and slamming down into the ground just in front of where Mierra was fighting the goons. She threw herself up before it hit, twisting and kicking two out of its path.
“Hey, kill me if you want, but don’t kill your own guys! That’s just bad management skills!” Rodent backflipped, bouncing off the hood of a car. She heard a couple of shrieks inside the car as she bounced off. Nothing to be helped, though this probably meant people’d call her the maniac instead of the mechanical monstrosity threatening their lives. Did Cavalier have days like this?
“They knew the risks!” Dragontail snarled. “So long as you finally die!” His tail reared back, multiple energy pulses firing out of it like a spread of photon torpedos from Star Trek. Mierra always got annoyed at that kind of thing. She was shooting quills made out of her own freaking hair, and the bad guys got TV stuff?
Fortunately, the energy pulses were bright but weirdly slow, meaning that with the right twists in the air they went right past her, bursting as they hit the ground. Most people had fled the area already, thankfully — the same senses that let Mierra feel these intruders let her ‘feel’ the civilians and noncombatants that belonged here, and none had been in that line of fire. That luck wouldn’t last — she had to end this!
“Yeah, well — I’ve got homework so dying might have to wait for summer break!” Mierra hit the ground, rolled to bounce forward off another telephone pole, this time near the ground, and scooped up a blue metal postbox. She spun around, throwing it at Dragontail and throwing herself to the side in the same movement.
Dragontail swatted the oncoming postbox aside with his tail, bellowing. It smashed into the side of a brownstore, splitting open and spilling mail everywhere. Great, now the USPS would be on Mierra’s case too.
Still, it successfully meant that Dragontail’s namesake tail was off to the side, letting Mierra fire off several quills at the armored supervillain. Impact quills and a couple hotflares — he had no exposed skin to let him tag Dragontail with a sleepyquill—
Just Mierra’s luck, the villain barely noticed the bursts of heat, light and force. He thundered forward, the dragon’s head on the barrel-like tail snapping forward and hammering out with a sonic cannon. Mierra shrieked involuntarily, clapping her hands over her elongated ears. She had to—
Dragontail snarled and the dragonhead split four ways, firing what looked like a bundle that spread wide into a wire net. Mierra tried to throw herself out of the way but it still hit and wrapped around her, delivering a massive electrical charge through her body.
“There!” Dragontail shouted. “Stay on her while I line up the killshot!”
Mierra convulsed, forcing herself to roll even in the net, twisting — the primary bundle and powerpack was on the back side. She twisted and arched back, vertebrae unusually flexible as she tried to line things up—
Her mane of hair was straighter and longer in her beast-form than her human form. As she twisted and tried to ignore the electricity surging through her body, it suddenly fanned behind her, straightening more into porcupine-like quills that were stronger than steel, stabbing back into the bundle and causing the power leads to crack open and fizzle, releasing the wire net at the same time. Magnetic, Mierra thought even as she threw off the wire and tried to—
Another energy pulse nailed her right in the midsection, causing her to shriek again even as she fell back. With her spatial awareness she could feel what thugs were still awake flanking her even as Dragontail rain towards her, his armored legs thudding as he sped up, tail-head rearing back to strike. To make matters worse she could barely sense something above — fast, like a missile, shooting straight toward—
Mierra sprang straight up, whooping with delight. That would put her in the air with nothing to hide behind, but it wouldn’t matter! Not if this really was—
A blond-haired girl in a sleek blue bodysuit that rippled with blue lines of energy shot through the sky, turbines on her feet projecting incredible thrust behind her as turbine gauntlets on both arms spun up, firing a series of energized power pulses down into the fray, throwing goons aside and nailing Dragontail right in the helmet, driving him to one knee. The girl killed her jets, twisting in air and firing the boots again, throwing herself right at Mierra, throwing one arm out—
Mierra rolled in the air, her tail wrapping around the newcomer’s arm. “Hi Jetgirl!” she shouted. “Glad you could drop by!”
“I’d rather drop dragons, Rodent!” Jetgirl said with a grin, hauling Mierra behind her as she gained altitude and swept into a full Immelmann turn.
Rodent let inertia snap her up behind Jetgirl, releasing her tail at apex and curling into a ball before snapping out her patagium force and trimming it to keep her momentum up, diving behind Jetgirl.
Jetgirl swung low into a full strafing run, her energized pulses taking out the remaining goons and forcing Dragontail to hunch down and cover his head, his tail trying to track the aerial ace.
Rodent shot down, retracting her patagium and rolling to hit the armored menace in the shoulder back with both feet, driving him into the pavement. She rolled forward, claws tearing at the back unit and tearing out electricals. “Man, I hate it when rats get into the wiring!” she shouted, pouncing and grabbing the barrel-wide tail in her arms, forcing it to extend as she hooked her tail around a telephone pole and strained.
Jetgirl had turned, in the meantime, and sweeping forward maximized her arm-turbines’ power, firing a charge into the middle of Dragontail’s tail — the energy slamming into it and shattering metal and mechanics.
Rodent felt things go slack, let her tail go slack, and pulled as she hit the ground, bracing with the claws of her feet. With the sound of rending metal she wrenched the tail off Dragontail’s armor and threw it to one side.
“No!” Dragontail shouted. “It’s not fair!”
“It never is!” Mierra shouted back, jumping forward, hooking the villain and rolling him around into a suplex that caused more metal to shatter. Rolling back out of the way with her own momentum, Mierra cleared the way to let Jetgirl hit him with several more pulses.
Dragontail twitched but didn’t move. Neither did his men. The steady cry of danger, predator flowing through Rodent’s nervous system quieted even as Rodent bounded across the street and up onto the roof of the deli. Police cars — including a Parahuman Containment Van — were rolling down Edison. They were done there.
Jetgirl flew up into a hover, then killed jets and dropped on the roof of the Deli next to Mierra. “Are you okay?” she asked. When she wasn’t shooting through the skies like an F-16, Jetgirl was a well proportioned woman with a mask under her hair and a golden lens over her eyes. An orange and red pilot’s scarf around her shoulder, golden turbine-gauntlets, turbine-boots, and belt rounded it out.
“Oh, just peachy,” Mierra said, a bit breathlessly. “I was just getting warmed up. Fifty thousand volts is the best way to start a workout, you know.”
“Oh, I bet. Want to be checked out at G5 H.Q.?” Jetgirl was a member of the Pentad of Guardians, or ‘Guardian Pentad.’ G5 for short. They usually worked out of Midtown and covered Catarins. That didn’t mean they minded the occasional foray into Northlyn, of course.
“I don’t think I need it,” Mierra said, rotating her shoulder. Her body regenerated quickly, so even the burns and strains from the fight were clearing up fast. Besides, she had to get back over to Fillmore so she could make her bus.
“Okay!” Jetgirl grinned broadly. “So! Are you doing anything tonight? It’s not an accident I was flying up here, you know.”
“Tonight? I have—“
Millard Fillmore High School was across the thruway and two local streets, not to mention the fact that they were a block down Burke. Still, this was Mierra’s homeland, and between her acute sight, her spatial awareness, and her general sense of her neighboring people, she could tell things even from this distance. For example, she could tell that a couple of buses were pulling out of the lot. She could tell that Smits was on one of them. She could almost make out the ’19’ on the bus’s side even from the corner of her eye.
She could still catch it if—
No, they would have taken a headcount on the way in. If she just showed up, they’d ask questions she couldn’t answer.
“Rodent?” Jetgirl asked.
“I… have absolutely nothing I have to do tonight,” she said. She couldn’t quite keep her voice level.
“Rodent, is everything all right?” Jetgirl was frowning now. “If there’s something—“
“No. No, it’s not important. What do you need?”
Jetgirl looked at Mierra for a moment, then nodded. “Okay. Well. There’s a meeting tonight. Big one. Shooting Star asked me to fly up here and invite you. Specifically, so…”
Shooting Star was the leader and most powerful member of the Pentad of Guardians. Rodent had met her a few times and they’d gotten along — but asking Jetgirl to fly up to Northlyn just to invite her? That did sound big. “Okay,” she said. “Are you going to be there, too?”
“I can’t. Got a thing. But Shoot and Antonym will both be there. And a couple from Double-A.” Double-A was Astonishing Alliance. One of the biggest deals in Midtown. “I think they’re trying to get Foolhardy, Bauchan and Sprite, Snow Leopard… lot of people.”
“Oh. Well…” At this point, having a thing to do would mean delaying going home, and there wasn’t anything there for Mierra tonight. They were already pretty down on her lately — at least they didn’t know she’d had a shot at the Roosevelt Competition. That would be a disaster. Mierra wanted to avoid disasters at least until the end of the school year. She figured she was going to be placed in a different foster home then anyway. She knew the pattern. “Yeah, I’ll be there.”
“Great!” Jetgirl’s boot-turbines fired. “Have fun with it!” She lifted off the ground, turning in the air—
“Wait! Where is it?”
“Oh! Duh! Right!” Jetgirl laughed. “Churchyard Court! Five P.M.!”
“Church—” Churchyard Court. One of the tallest skyscrapers in midtown. Corporate headquarters of Church Industries International. Home of the billionaire who owned CII — a billionaire who spent a lot of his time flying a jet that turned into a giant robot that was connected to his nervous system, backed up by unmanned craft. Cavalier and his Cavalry. Maybe the biggest deal in Empire City.
“Jetgirl!” Rodent shouted. “I don’t even know Colin Church!” she shouted, but by then the blond was rocketing south towards Catarins.
Rodent watched the shimmering contrail Jetgirl left behind her for a long moment. She took a deep breath. Five o’clock wouldn’t be a problem, though she’d want to properly secure her bookbag first. She wondered if you were supposed to bring a gift when you were invited to a billionaire’s place to chat. Of course, Rodent was broke, so that probably didn’t matter either way.
Churchyard Court Building, Borough of Midtown
Churchyard Court was an amazing building in the middle of some of the most amazing buildings in the world. Eighty-six stories of glass, reinforced and chromed metals, and concrete that was significantly more durable than most, Churchyard Court’s distinctive octagonal tower rose out of a block-wide base at the corner of Vanderbilt and 47th. Like a lot of these buildings there were some impressive stores and a shopping plaza at the base, as well as hundreds of corporate and commercial tenants in the building proper, first class restaurants — you name it it was probably there.
Unlike any of those buildings, the upper third of the building was given over to launch bays for the autonomous, telepresence, and flown craft of ‘the Cavalry’ — the air brigade designed, built, and generally flown by Colin Church himself. Most notable of all was the series of fighters, fighter/bombers, support craft, ground vehicles and more designed for Church to pilot from within a specialized drop-in capsule under the name the Cavalier.
And like almost every corporate building in Empire City, it had its defenses. Granted, most of the others didn’t have deployable cannons, missile and deadfire launchers, energy grids and the like, but every last one of these buildings had the most impenetrable shield of them all, at least for basically law-abiding citizens.
“Look,” Mierra said. “I have an invitiation. I’m supposed to go up there.
Mierra was standing, naturally enough, in the corporate lobby of Churchyard Court. It was on the floor above all the shops. Security staff (and an impressive number of immobile robotic figures that looked like art and so wasn’t art) were on hand to make sure that the only people who went up the express elevators to Church Industries International’s offices, the fabrication and testing floors, the Cavalry Deployment and Resupply Bays, or Colin Church’s private floors were the ones approved to do so.
“Lady says she has an invitation,” one of the security guards told the other.
“Lot of people say a lot of things,” the other guard said. “But I don’t have a ‘Rodent’ on the list.”
“Thank God, right? Like we need the Health Department on our ass.” The two guards laughed.
Mierra rolled her eyes. Like she hadn’t heard that one before. “Please. Just call… someone. Whoever you call. They’ll tell you.”
“Why don’t you give me a name of someone to call, and maybe I’ll call them,” the first guard said.
“And maybe take that mask off while you’re at it,” the other one said.
“I’m not. Wearing. A mask.” Mierra tried not to growl. It was hard.
“Oh, right. I forgot. Maybe look under man-beast, Willy?”
“Yeah — or Ratgirl. Maybe it’s under Ratgirl. That’s your name, right?”
Rodent rubbed the bridge of her snout, right between her eyes. “Rodent. I’m called Rodent.”
“Well, maybe he’s got it under your real name. You do have a real name, right?”
“Yeah — Ratgirl!”
“He doesn’t know my real name.”
This made the guards laugh. “Oh, I’m sure you’re on the list now,” the first said. “Look. We don’t wanna call the police or bring down the hammer on you, Lady. Why don’t you just run along home?”
“Scurry along home,” the other said. “Mice, rats, whatever — they scurry.”
“How are you two so… I’m a six-foot-tall anthropomorphic rodent! Doesn’t that say something?”
“Pfft,” the second guard said. “This is Empire City and our boss is the Cavalier. We see weirder and scarier than you on our lunch hour.”
“And if you’re six feet? I’m the King of England,” the first said. “We got bigger rats than you in our subway station.”
“Wow you two are rude! And that’s a high bar to set around here!”
The two guards both shrieked, one falling out of his chair. Behind them, a female figure seemingly formed out of liquid darkness had flowed up. She was slender, lacking any features whatsoever, the darkness of her body seeming to just absorb all light instead of reflecting any of it. Her hair, contrarily, was white spun crystal that glowed like fiber optics from Spencer Gifts. Though she had no face, she did have two solid white eyes, shimmering almost indistinctly. And on her chest, there was a greek letter from which she took her name.
Upsilon. The mysterious, almost trickster-like shadowgirl of the Astonishing Alliance.
“What the Hell?” the guard asked.
“You two. You’re being so rude. Hi, Rodent! Sorry about the competition! Maybe next time, huh?”
Rodent was startled — she’d been surprised when Upsilon had appeared in the first place, since the shadowgirl didn’t trigger any of her stranger danger or other enhanced senses. If Upsilon was referring to Rodent’s civilian identity… “I… I don’t… know what—“
“Oo! 2 out of 10 for the recovery. Ah well. What’cha doing down here?”
Rodent shook her head to clear it. “They won’t let me take the elevator.”
Upsilon cocked her head. “Why didn’t you climb the building?”
“…because this building repels intruders really enthusiastically? Plus there aren’t good handholds on the top thirty floors, from the look of it.” Plus Rodent figured the fastest way to be uninvited would be to be flagged as an intruder and arrested.
“Oh. Darn. Ah well. I guess you’ll need someone to vouch for you.”
“So— can you vouch for me?”
“Me?” Upsilon giggled. “Are you kidding? I’m not on the list!” The liquid darkness seemed to suddenly collapse in on itself and she was gone.
“…great,” Mierra muttered. She took a deep breath to try again, when her senses felt new presences come in from the parking garage elevator — ones that ‘pinged’ familiar and friendly. She closed her eyes, relief washing over her.
“Yeah, don’t think that helped your case,” the second guard said, oblivious to the newcomer.
“Geez, I think I need to change my underwear. Where’d she come from?”
“She isn’t the person you should be worried about, Willy.”
Mierra wasn’t surprised. The guards were — and given how acerbic the words were—
“What the Hell,” the second guard said. “It’s like a convention of—“
“Shut up,” the first guard hissed.
“That’s right, shut up.” The speaker stepped up next to Mierra on the left. She was in black like Upsilon, but in her case it was a tight fitting black bodysuit with a white explanation point down the middle. She was slender, shorter than even Mierra’s human form, and so pale you almost doubted she ever saw the sun, and her hair was black and bob-cut instead of white. The mask over half her face didn’t hide her annoyance. She was Antonym of the Pentad of Guardians, and her attitude could kill most small animals. “What the Hell, Willy?”
“Uh… I’m sorry, Miss Antonym,” the guard said, stumbling over his words. “She’s not on the list. I mean, this lady is… she—“
“She’s one of our associates,” a second woman said, moving next to Mierra on the right. This one actually was the six feet that Rodent had claimed to be, with a cool terra cotta hued skin and dark hair, wearing a sleek green and white combat uniform, with a white half-helmet and a large white five point star on her chest flanked by two smaller stars below. Shooting Star. Leader of the Pentad of Guardians and one of the strongest Parahumans in Empire City. “Obviously we vouch for her.”
“Oh — oh yes, of course, ma’am.” The guard swallowed. “But… you see… she’s not on the list, so we—“
“Oh for God’s sake,” Antonym snapped. She pulled a folded piece of paper out of her pocket — despite her enhanced senses, Mierra couldn’t tell how Antonym even had pockets — and unfolded it. “Here. Our invitation and authorization. Shooting Star, Antonym, and Rodent. Will you please unlock the damn elevator before we’re late?”
The second guard stared at the sheet. “Right away, ma’am,” he said, pushing a button.
“God,” Antonym muttered, walking around the security desk towards the elevator that had opened behind them — the center elevator, in particular. The one trimmed in gold.
Colin Church’s private elevator.
Rodent didn’t quite stumble as she rushed to follow. Shooting Star started to smirk as she took up the rear. The three heroes walked into the elevator and turned, even as the doors closed and the car began to swiftly rise.
“Thanks,” Rodent said, a little embarrassed.
“No problem,” Shooting Star said.
“God, those idiots,” Antonym snapped. “Give them a little power.” She shook her head.
“You knew them?” Rodent asked.
“Yeah, I used to come here a lot,” Antonym said. “And I’m hard to forget.”
“I’m glad you said that,” Shooting Star murmured.
“Oh shut up, Shoot.”
“…well, I’m just glad I was on your invitation. Though I’m not sure why.”
“What, this?” Antonym showed Rodent the paper. It was a handwritten list of what looked like books. “This is just a bunch’a antiquities my boyfriend wanted me to look for at Liber Antiquary down on the mall level. Like he can afford any of them. I didn’t have a stupid invite.”
“But — but I saw—“
“Antonym’s power lets her adapt to oppose any given enemy,” Shooting Star said. “In this case, the ability to create an illusionary piece of bureaucratic nonsense for a couple of security jerks.” She shook her head. “I’m glad Upsilon told us to come bail you out.”
“Bail me out?”
“Yeah — we drove the G5-B over here. There’s an express elevator from the parking level. We’d’ve missed you entirely,” Antonym said, putting the sheet away. “Granted, it’d have been easier for her to tell Church to call them, but who can figure Upsilon out?”
“She… she won’t be up here,” Rodent said, feeling weirdly over her head. “She said she wasn’t on the list.”
“Rodent?” Shooting Star grinned. “I don’t know how much time you’ve spent with Upsilon… but she’s never been on an approved list in her life, and if that’s ever stopped her it’s because she was setting up something bigger.”
The doors opened… directly into the foyer of what was clearly a penthouse suite. There was water cascading down a smoked glass wall, and light music playing. Rodent realized the water sculpture alone cost more than her foster parents paid in rent in a year.
Her senses seemed to swell, filling the room — hearing and sensing others. Upsilon was indeed there, along with a few others Rodent knew, an ‘Unfamiliar Neighbor’ she assumed was Cavalier — that is, Colin Church — himself… and two others, not active predators but not neighbors or familiar either…
Rodent followed the two Guardians through to a huge lounge or living room, with furniture, a wet bar, art here and there, a beautiful glass wall leading out to a rooftop garden and pool—
And people. Including those three that Rodent hadn’t met — but seeing them, she recognized them all, her jaw dropping in the process.
“Hello, everyone,” Shooting Star said.
“Church, your guards are worse jerks than ever. They were grilling the Hell out of Rodent! What the Hell?”
Colin Church turned away from his guests to look at the newcomers. It was all there. Brown hair, light tanned skin, hazel eyes, always two to three days worth of stubble — and grey vest and trousers, with lighter grey shirt and dark grey silk tie. Full suit minus the jacket. He looked like he’d just walked off the trading floor by way of Armani. Colin Church was a billionaire industrialist — one of the wealthiest men in Empire City. He was also a genius technologist. The combination had made him the armored Cavalier the same way Mierra was the Rodent.
It was well known that he was also kind of a dick. “Excuse me?” he asked. “Who is this?”
“Rodent,” Shooting Star said. “You know of her, I’m sure. She works out of—“
“Rodent?” Church blinked, staring at Mierra. “Seriously?”
Antonym’s eyes narrowed. “Yes. Seriously.”
“Amazing,” Church said, sounding at best sarcastic. “Another one. Paraheroes coming out of the woodwork. Though I guess that makes sense — I mean, she is a rat, right?”
“Rodent,” Mierra said, feeling more than a little cowed and humiliated. “I actually draw off the abilities and characteristics of all rodents.”
“It’s the pride in your voice when you say that that gets me,” Church said, shaking his head. Yup. Dick. And clearly he wasn’t the one who invited Mierra. But then, a lot of people in the room were kind of dicks. And the exceptions to that rule had to swim upstream towards civility. Mierra had to just firm up her resolve, especially with the others who were there. There was Doctor Aiden Archer, aka Doctor Astonishing — the crystal-green haired leader of the Astonishing Alliance in the combat jumpsuit with all the pouches. He nodded to Rodent — they’d met before. He was cool to everyone but hadn’t ever been overtly rude. Upsilon was indeed there and sticking close to her leader. She cocked her head, watching Rodent. Doctor Terrence ‘Terry’ Simon and his partner Sonata DuLay — Bauchan and Sprite — were on hand as well, Bauchan nodding and Sprite in her six-inch fae form fluttering and smiling to Mierra as she was encouraged to sit on one of the couches between Antonym and Shooting Star.
As crazy as all this was, Mierra was only so impressed by her fellow Empirical heroes. Not when there were the other two in the room. After all, there was a much wider world outside of Empire City. A world where parahumans weren’t as thick on the ground as in Empire City. A world where titans protected entire cities and the entire world, under the aegis of Justice Wing.
And two of the best known of Justice Wing’s members — Freya and the Lieutenant — seemed to embody that even as waited for this bit of humiliation to pass. He was a legendary police officer rejuvenated to peak condition. She was a literal goddess. The two of them considered Paragon and Nightstick coworkers. It was like they weren’t even from the same planet as the Empire City heroes they were apparently visiting.
“You’re not being fair to Rodent,” Shooting Star was saying. “She’s been active at least as long as my team.”
“Really?” Church asked, turning back to look at Mierra. “So — years of… what? Chewing up wood in Kingsford? Nesting? What do you do down there?”
“Northlyn,” Mierra muttered.
“Wait, you mean you’ve seriously never run into Rodent?” Antonym asked, scowling at Church. “Gosh. I’m shocked. No, really. I’m honestly shocked that in all your adventures you’ve never made it up to her neighborhood. I mean… you’d have to spend all your time in Midtown or Old Bodjwick Village to miss her, and I can’t believe that.” Clearly, the dark haired Guardian wasn’t even slightly intimidated by their host.
“Oh, yeah, Ant. I never, ever get to any of those terrible, poor people places.” He snorted at Antonym. “It’s the food. I can’t stand poor people food. And the smell. You know how sensitive my nose is, Ant.” He stabbed his finger at the slender hero. “Don’t give me any of that crap. I’ve done more good in Northlyn or Braeburn Heights than your team’s done total, anywhere, and you know it.”
“It’s not a competition, is it?” the Lieutenant asked, mildly. If he were disturbed by the bickering, he didn’t show it. Lieutenant Jason McCallister was at least seventy years old, if the stories Mierra heard were true, but he looked thirty at the most, with a smooth, warm beige skin tone, dark hair, and blue-grey eyes that seemed to take everything in. He’d taken off his helmet, but kept on his almost paramilitary looking body armor. “You all do good work — you’re all—“
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Antonym snapped, rounding on the Lieutenant. Apparently the Guardian wasn’t intimidated by anyone. “Are we being too confrontational for you? I know you Justice Wingers like things to be nice and friendly. Why are you here, exactly, again? I’m not sure that’s been explained to me.”
“You know, it’s fascinating,” Freya said, letting her voice fill the room even though she barely even spoke at a conversational volume. There was something about her cadence — something literally divine, Mierra realized — that could focus all attention on her with just a few words. And once it was on her it was unlikely it would ever be lost. “Most cities have four or five confirmed parahumans — and maybe one to three of them take up a heroic mantle. But just looking around this room — Shooting Star, your Guardians are five in number. Doctor Astonishing, you also have five in your Alliance. There are four of you here who work independently, and I know that there are many heroes not here. Foolhardy, for example. or Snow Leopard or the Sigil. Why does Empire City have so many heroes compared to everywhere else?”
Church sucked a breath in between his teeth. “Simple numbers,” he said, walking into the middle of the room. Mierra guessed he was a pacer. “If you take the full Greater Empirical Metropolitan Area into account, we’ve got just shy of twenty million people here. No other place in America even comes close.”
“I thought Las Bendiciones was larger,” the Lieutenant asked.
Church shrugged. Mierra wondered if he was nervous or if this was just how he talked to people. “The City of Las Bendiciones is larger than the City of Empire. If you take both their full metropolitan areas into account? We beat them by like six million.” He looked at Freya. “Third’s the Crown City metro, and we have over twice as many people in a smaller geographical area. More people, more parahuman expression.”
“There’s more to it than that,” Mierra said abruptly, before looking off to the side. So much for keeping quiet
Church paused. “Excuse me?” he asked. “Do you have an insight to add, Miss Rodent? It is Miss, right? Not Missus? What does ‘rodent powers’ mean, anyway? Like… can you swim like a beaver, or run like a jackrabbit?”
Mierra flushed, not that anyone could tell under her pelt. “The beaver thing, yes,” she said. “Rabbits are lagomorphs, so no.”
“Wait — are you telling me… your amazing rat powers know the difference between Order Lagomorpha and Order Rodentia?” He shook his head, seemingly mystified. “How did you even get these powers? Were you… bitten by a radioactive prairie dog? Raised by voles? Did the ancient wizard Zeugma give you a magic word but only for mouse gods?”
Mierra took a deep breath. Somehow this was worse than fighting Dragontail had been. She looked down. “It’s not a thing,” she said. “I just underwent primary parahuman expression like anyone else.”
“No, that’s not how this works,” Church said. “DETAILS has that report — all parahuman abilities or their equivalent come from one of five sources.” He ticked them off with the fingers of one hand. “Zero-point, divine, arcane, xenological, or good old fashioned gumption. Nonspecific primary parahuman expression’s zero-point. You can’t tell me that the almighty Vril keeps up on taxonomy.”
“It’s amazing how many people think those five things are mutually exclusive,” Freya said, with a slightly amused expression.
“Most of my work has been on bridging those distinctions,” Doctor Astonishing said, speaking up for the first time since Mierra and the Guardians had arrived. “Bridging our scientific understanding of the universe with the insights of the arcane and the epiphanies of the divine. It’s hardly surprising that Rodent may have a Vril-based ability that itself taps into a universal archetype.”
“Right, sure,” Bauchan cut in. He didn’t talk much, as far as Mierra could tell. The times they’d met before he’d always seemed a bit nervous, especially compared to his vivacious partner. “That was — I isolated faeon particles that way. And Empire City has a convergence of—“
“Oh, right. Bridging those distinctions.” Church snorted, staring at Doctor Astonishing. If he registered Bauchan’s interjection he didn’t show it. “That’s how you and that freak show you created got started, right? How’d that work out for the rest of your buddies, again?”
“I dunno.” Upsilon chimed in. “I’d talk about the unbearable angst of my existence, but I’ve gone through your personal correspondence, Church. I thought I knew what bleak was but I had to revise.”
“Wait — when did you go through my personal correspondence?”
Upsilon snickered. “Silly rabbit. I go through everyone’s personal correspondence.”
Church stared at her, then looked back at Mierra. “Whatever. So, Furries must love you, right? I mean, you’re like a gift from the Gods — no offense, Freya.”
“Oh my God, just shut up already!” Sprite shouted, grinning and laughing. Her voice and laughter alike resonated like bells. She had been drifting near Bauchan’s shoulder like an azure-glowing Tinkerbell but with butterfly wings. Now she darted up into flight, then expanded in a rush of blue and silver sparkles, becoming a beautiful woman second only to Freya in terms of her figure, her skin a warm, deep brown, her hair sleekly coiffed with light highlights. Full size, her uniform looked like metallic cloth. Mierra had heard of it before — a midnight blue aurichalon-weave suit with iridescent hepatizite metal panels on her arms, legs, and midsection. It was dazzling, not to mention priceless.
Mierra was feeling more and more ridiculous. Sprite was wearing tailored and machined clothes made out of literally mythological metals, and ‘Rodent’ was in an off the shelf unitard she’d decorated with an iron-on mouse logo. She felt stupid just sitting there.
Sprite was still talking, though. “Seriously, Colin. Are you so riddled with imposter syndrome that you have to find someone to browbeat in every conversation? Because you’re always sort of like this but you’re on fire today. Or are you performing for company?”
“What more is there to it, Rodent?” the Lieutenant asked. His voice was quiet, but it seemed to pierce through the tension.
“What?” Mierra asked, half-jumping in her seat.
“Sorry.” He smiled. It was a surprisingly warm smile. “I didn’t mean to startle you. You said there was something more to Empire City’s heroic population than sheer numbers.”
“Oh. Well, yeah.” She looked around, half-expecting Church to interrupt her again. When it didn’t happen, she kept on. “Look… Mister Church said that Crown City was third in size, and that’s true. But… why are there only one or two heroes there? Because one of them’s Paragon. He has every power under the sun. He’s everywhere at once. He’s… Paragon.”
“Don’t oversell it,” Antonym muttered. “He’s probably a freak or something.” She looked more uncomfortable than normal, which for Antonym was saying something.
Mierra ignored the Guardian. “Why are you two the only really well-known heroes from Monument City or the Capital District? Because it’s the two of you. The greatest police officer in history and the Valkyrie Goddess right out of Bulfinch’s Mythology. Paramount City has the Beacon, and she moves at lightspeed! Even if you had a dozen people per city decide to put on the suits and capes, most of them’d never get noticed and probably they’d move somewhere else where they figured they could do some good. You know the song — no one wants to tug on Paragon’s cape.
“But Empire City… we’re the biggest, with the most people, like Mister Church said. Our neighborhoods are larger than most cities. And… hey, everyone here’s amazing. Really. I feel dumb even sitting here. But none of them are gods, or almighty aliens, or girls turning into light, or even ultimate police officers.” She looked around herself again. “Shooting Star or Topaz are probably the strongest or most powerful. Mister Church — Cavalier has the most influence and reach. And Doctor Astonishing may be the smartest man on Earth. But none of them have that kind of overwhelming… everything that you all do in Justice Wing. It’s like you’re idealized, and we’re… just not. And honestly? Bad things happen in Empire. Like… a lot. Street crime, organized crime. Weird crime. I don’t know why, but the incidence of that sort of thing is higher in Empire City than almost anywhere else, at least according to the Journal of Parahuman Criminology.”
“Always fun light reading.” Church said.
Mierra managed to ignore him. “So… they… we… we have to push. To meet this. We don’t have the raw power or personality or whatever so that one of us dominates the city the way other heroes do in other cities. We have to reach for more. We have to reach higher.”
Antonym snorted. “Excelsior.”
Church blinked, looking at Antonym. “What was that?”
Antonym looked up. “What? Oh. It’s the New York State motto. ‘Excelsior.’ It means ‘ever higher.’ This guy on my block uses it the way the Hawaiians use ‘Aloha.’”
Church narrowed his eyes. “Excelsior. Huh. I like that.” He looked at the Lieutenant and Freya. “Action Vole’s got a point. Plus… you know. We’re Empiricals. We have attitude. It comes from our water supply. You’d know that if you were from around here.”
“Lieutenant McCallister was born here,” Mierra blurted out.
“What?” Church said, turning to face Mierra again.
“The… the Lieutenant. He was born here. Probably spent the first ten or eleven years of his life here, before moving away — probably that’s when he went to Monument City. But born here. Bodjwick, I think.”
The Lieutenant was staring at Mierra. “How could you possibly know that?” He didn’t sound angry — just surprised and impressed.
Mierra shrugged. “It’s… in rodents it’s called kin recognition, along with what’s called the ‘dear enemy effect.’ A lot of rodents can recognize their neighbors or kin like that, so I can too. The same with predators. I can almost feel them.”
Church was staring now, too. “In rodents… kin recognition and the dear enemy effect are olfactory abilities. Based on recognizable pheromones, usually in urine. Are you telling me Lieutenant Jayce McCallister smells like Empirical pee?”
“No!” Mierra was clenching her fist, now. She’d pushed through feeling embarrassed straight into anger. Why was she being grilled like this? “It’s not like that. It’s… it’s like a psychic equivalent.”
“Oh, of course. So it’s not just that you have all-knowing taxonomic rodent powers, but they’re also sanitized and made into mind reading. Because that? That makes sense. I totally buy that—“
“Look!” Mierra snapped. “I don’t know why, but Shooting Star sent Jetgirl over to get me and bring me here. I didn’t ask to come, I didn’t know this was just for the adults and the big boys and the major league ballplayers, okay? And I sure don’t know why you seem to hate me, Mister Church. I don’t know what I did to offend you — I promise you I’m not shedding on your furniture, and you never even heard of me before today! So thank you for… whatever. I’ll see myself out.” She pushed up to her feet. Yup, this was the perfect, humiliating end to a terrible day.
“Sit down,” Church snapped. He then paused, then took a deep breath, shrugging. “Please. Sit.”
Mierra looked at him for a long moment. As antagonistic as he was being, she wasn’t getting the predator-ping off him. Still — she slid back, smoothly backflipping and crouching on the back of the couch, watching the industrialist.
“Thank you.” Church turned and walked over to the wet bar. He reached around it, and Mierra could hear the sound of toggles being flipped.
On the far wall, behind the Lieutenant and Freya, a panel almost as tall as the wall itself slid open. A bank of oversized computer screens pushed out and spread. Data was spreading over them — including a series of newspapers that had been scanned in, some other pictures and the like.
All of Mierra. Well, all of Rodent.
“Here,” Church said, pointing at one. “This is you — this is you, right? — and you’re running into a fire you just carried three people out of.” He shook his head. “Burnt fur. It must have smelled awful. Oh — over here you’re fighting… yes, I believe that’s a giant mechanical spider. Because of course you’re fighting a giant mechanical spider. Up there — that’s you jumping up from a cluster of… those look like Antonucci’s boys. Two are down — one who was behind you seems to have a face full of quills, which I assume means your hair can sometimes be porcupine-quills? Anyway, as you’re jumping, you’re shooting some kind of gas launched dart from one of your bracers at one of the ones still standing. I’m going out on a limb and saying those are harvested from those same quills and then… I dunno. Treated with appropriate knockout goo. Oh, and here you are having clearly been hacked into with some kind of chainsaw sword that big guy’s holding, and it looks like your tail’s hanging loose on a shut gate — and sure doesn’t look like it’s just a detached costume piece.”
Mierra took a deep breath of her own. “Yeah, well — Lumberjock’s weirdly proud of that chainsword thing and sometimes it’s get gouged or watch some kid get gouged.”
“Oh sure. We’ve all occasionally had to take an AD&D bad idea to the midsection. But from what I’ve figured out, you were back out there the next day. Good as new.” He turned back around, looking at Mierra. “I know some rodents have breakaway tails they can regrow, but there aren’t rodents who literally regenerate flesh, are there?”
Mierra shifted in her crouch. The other heroes around her were mostly smiling, but they were also watching her. Somehow, being lauded was worse than being ragged on. “Yeah there are,” she said. “The… the African spiny mouse regenerates skin and other bits without scars.”
Church stared, then shook his head, laughing. “That can’t be fair,” he said. “I have a knee scar from playing racquetball. And, just to cap this off…” he pushed another button. “Bring up the East Northlyn incident?” One of the displays shifted, showing a black and white of a blurry Rodent from above, clearly jumping back while Dragontail slammed his namesake into the ground in front of her and his own henchmen. “This is our Miss Rodent fighting a half-ton of idiot-savant in some of the best military ordinance on the planet, after my own. As near as I can tell, this ‘Dragontail’ is on a quest to kill Rodent and pose for Heavy Metal album covers. Just another day… except this happened…” he checked his watch. “Under three hours ago. And yeah, Jetgirl came in with the assist, but this was mostly all you, Rodent. I was prepping to launch, but then I clearly didn’t have to.”
Church chuckled again. “Rodent — Freya and the Lieutenant here asked me to organize this meet-up. And I got the people I could who were at the heart of Empire City’s heroes. And they’re pretty cool, don’t you think? Bauchan over here, with his literally magical fundamental particles turning him and Sprite into part-fae, not to mention sourcing literally unobtainable fantasy metals for their stuff. Doctor Astonishing over there with his very not normal Astonishing Alliance, all in their tower that’s almost as nice as my building. The Guardian Pentad — and one of these days, someone needs to tell me what a damn ‘pentad’ is in the first place — launching out of Heywood Park in Catarins. A pretty nice neighborhood. And look at me. I have all the money on Earth, and I build things like no one’s ever seen.
He turned again, and walked towards Mierra — still pacing, but with less attitude. “Everyone else here’s pretty well funded. And then there’s you. You, in… I guess those are danskins and bracers you look like you welded together in shop class. And I know you don’t get rewarded, and I know you don’t get respect — I’ve heard the jokes like everyone else. Hell, the idiots downstairs proved that point. And yet, you still do it. Every day. We represent Empirical heroes and the Empirical spirit pretty well, but you? You are Empire City. You’re everything good about us. You’re neighbors helping neighbors even when they’re ungrateful bastards. You’re the one who sticks up for the little guy. You’re the one fighting out of her weight class four days out of five, and finding a way to make it work.” He paused. “And even years after you started, you’re still not old enough to drive, are you?”
Mierra felt her gut clench, instinctively crouching lower and pulling tighter, almost into a ball. Her hair was stiffening and extending out — instinctive defensive reaction. The transformation added height and curves to her body, so she looked older than she was. She didn’t want people knowing she was just this kid from Northlyn — she’d lose whatever respect she had managed to earn. “…I can sprint at close to a hundred miles an hour,” she said, trying to sound snarky and hoping she didn’t come off as pathetic. “I can jump three hundred feet, I can glide off of buildings, and I have a subway pass. Why would I ever need to drive?”
Church snorted. “Nice deflection, kid. But I’m not ripping into you, here. I’m impressed.” He cocked his head to one side. “Now, don’t get me wrong. We’re updating your fashion choices. No more lycra. For one thing? You can see the fur bunching underneath it. Not a good look. We got something better. Doctor Astonishing did this thing with muons. But Jesus, kid — you’re at most two years older than my son, and you’re twice the hero I am and I know it. You’re here because this meeting made no sense if you weren’t here. You are everything every one of us in this room is trying to be. You embody ‘reaching higher.’” He smirked, opening his hands towards her. “Excelsior.”
Mierra laughed nervously. “Uh… thanks,” she said. “Um… so… If that… if you thought that… why were you being… y’know, such a jerk?”
Church smirked. “The word’s asshole, kid. I was being an asshole. Why? Three reasons. One? I actually am an asshole. I can try to hide it or I can embrace it. Two?” He nodded towards Sprite, who was still at normal human height. “Sonata over there was right. Imposter syndrome should be on my business card. I compensate by being even assholier. But three — the real reason?”
He slowly approached the teen hero. “We’re supposed to be polite. Polite’s easy. If you’re polite to someone, they’ll be polite back, usually. If you’re nice, they’ll try to be nice. Again, usually. But if you’re an asshole? Well, first they’ll try to be nice to you, to calm you down. If that doesn’t work, they’ll get formal. And if that doesn’t work, they’ll get mad. And that’s when you can see who they really are.” He grinned. “I don’t have magical nonmagical non-pee related good guy/bad guy senses, Rodent. I have to go with what’s worked for me all these years. And that? Is being an asshole.”
“He does it shockingly well,” Antonym said. “And this is so heartwarming I could cry, puke, or do both at the same time, but it gets me exactly no closer to my original question being answered.” She turned back to the two Justice Wingers. “Why. Are. You. Here?”
Freya laughed. It was an uninhibited laugh — raucous, like she were in a biker gang. Mierra supposed the Vikings were the biker gangs of their time, so… “Sorry,” she said, still clearly amused. “I was enjoying how caught up you’d all gotten in sniping and sarcasm. Which is no insult meant on my part — among the Æsir and Vanir we made such things an art form.”
“Yeah, I know,” Antonym said. “Flyting. Like battle rap but without any sense of rhythm. Still not an answer.”
“It’s a fair question,” the Lieutenant said, stepping forward. Bridging the gap between the Justice Wingers and the Empiricals. Mierra clenched her fist again, but her predator ping was being quiet. “And believe it or not, it comes back to exactly what you were saying, before.”
“Please, for the love of God don’t tell me you came all this way to mock Rodent’s powerset,” Antonym said. Mierra wasn’t sure how the Guardian could be so clearly unimpressed by a living legend, but then again, her powers were all about opposition, so…
“Absolutely not. I’d heard of her, too. She has a knack for making the right enemies. I respect that.” The Lieutenant looked around. “You’re right, of course. Empire City’s population and whatever other factors means you’re getting a much higher rate of primary paranormal expression of all types than anyplace else in the country and possibly the world. Even comparable sized population centers, like Yokahama — which actually beats your metropolitan area by eighteen million people — don’t have this kind of heroic boom or parahuman density going on.”
“I know five different groups and four independent heroes in Tokyo and Yokahama,” Upsilon said. “The weird one’s Shanghai. They’ve got five million more people in their city than we have in our metropolitan area, but only two registered parahuman heroes and not that many unregistered.”
“Not as weird as you think,” Bauchan said. He sounded annoyed. “It’s what I was trying to tell you before. Faeon particles and certain other fundamental particle streams follow predictable patterns along the Earth’s surface. Ley lines — that’s the name most people have heard of. And as it turns out, the ley lines cross and intersect in Empire City in particular and all along Southern New York in general. I assume — I mean, I think that’s why our parahuman expressions don’t follow the usual patterns so tightly.”
“Not to mention those ‘weird events’ and weirder people Rodent mentioned,” Sprite said. “The intersecting ley lines are like a GPS targeting point for the bizarre and dangerous.”
“Mm,” Doctor Astonishing said. “That would account for the conditions I detected, leading me to conduct my initial experiments here—“
“Exactly,” The Lieutenant said. “I mean, I didn’t know about ley lines per se—“
“I did,” Freya said, cheerfully.
“—but I knew you had more unusual and paracriminal events here than most other places. I read the same article Rodent did. And that makes Empire City incredibly important to the future of parahumanity, because right now, as a nation, as a society, and as a planet we aren’t even close to ready for what’s coming.”
Mierra was impressed. That one seemed to even shut Antonym and Church up.
“Verified parahuman expression — of all varieties — is happening more and more,” the Lieutenant continued. “All over the world. Yes, in some places it happens less often and in some more often, but the trend is increasing exponentially, and has been since the public revelation of parahumanity. Before that, as near as we can piece together, parahuman expression had been growing logarithmically since the early 1910s, and had long since plateaued. And before that, parahuman expression, albeit hard to verify, did happen but was rare.”
“The 1910s,” Doctor Astonishing said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. He then snapped his fingers. “The Corner Rise Spire Event of 1912!”
Church scoffed. “What, you’re saying reports of a white column of light in the mid-Atlantic, centering on a never-before-charted island, followed by an actual unexplained tsunami all along Atlantic coasts on both sides of the ocean… might have been connected to paraexpressive events? Shocking!”
“It doesn’t really matter,” Freya said, walking over to join the Lieutenant. “The past is the past. Here in the present, more and more people are expressing, developing, or acquiring parahuman abilities than ever before. And we don’t have any organized means of preparing or dealing with that.”
“Oh, this better not be leading up to drafting or registering parahumans,” Antonym snapped. “If you two are here—“
“Absolutely not,” the Lieutenant said. “I fought in World War II. I lived through the dawn of the Civil Rights era, the Red Scare, and Richard Nixon’s presidency. I will never support the registration, internment, or forced enlistment of anyone based upon their nature, be that race, creed, ethnicity, orientation, economic class, or ability.” He paused, looking around at the Empiricals. “That’s why we’ve been looking for alternatives. And that’s why we need you.”
“Justice Wing has informally fostered and trained young parahumans to use their abilities in an ethical and appropriate manner,” Freya said. “Generally, that has meant taking on junior apprentices. My own protégé Amulet, for example. Or Cudgel. Or Paragirl.”
“Sidekicks, you mean,” Antonym said. “Because nothing says ‘smart’ like sending some tween or middle school student out to punch crime in the face. That’ll never be a problem.” She paused, then looked at Rodent. “No offense meant.”
“I’m not a middle school student,” Mierra snapped back. Any more, she didn’t add.
“It’s worked so far,” the Lieutenant said. “But it’s not sustainable. Without significantly more formal structure, the ad hoc ‘adopting’ of teen partners will eventually break down. To that end, Justice Wing and DETAILS are starting an experiment in Grantham — a publicly known Institute, where young parahumans can go and safely learn how to use their powers, whether as heroes or just in their everyday lives.”
“DETAILS?” Antonym said. “Oh, right. Let’s get the government and secret agents at the forefront of our ‘institutes!’ Maybe they can even experiment on them and learn how to make more!”
“I’d think if anyone here would understand how sidekicks and kid heroes feel, it’d be you, Ant,” Church said, with no small bit of snark.
“What the Hell do you mean by that?”
“Oh, sorry. I wasn’t clear? I mean you look twelve. An undeveloped twelve at that.”
Antonym’s lip curled into a snarl. “And here people can’t understand why I dumped you.”
“They can’t? Your whole deal is being the perfect opponent. Frankly, I think I came out looking pretty good, there.”
“It won’t work,” Mierra said, suddenly.
“What?” Shooting Star asked, turning to look at Mierra.
“The Institute. I mean, it will work but it won’t work. There’s too many people. We don’t exactly have enough money for public education right now. Setting up an entire alternate educational system for people with powers? That can’t possibly work. Not without remaking the entire social infrastructure of the country.”
“Absolutely,” Church said. “You can believe her. Thanks to Prairie Dog towns she undoubtedly has super-community-organizing powers. And no one understands learning like lab rats.”
“So we’re back to the insults, then?” Sprite murmured.
“We never left,” Church said. “I just put it in context.”
“I do believe her,” the Lieutenant said. “Because she’s absolutely right. We can’t depend on formalized instruction for a long, long time. We need something that’ll work today, without billions of dollars.”
Sprite’s eyes widened slightly. “Empire City,” she said. “We’re in a pressure cooker of parahumans, paraexpressive events, villains across the board, even dimensional breaches. Not to mention that blurring of the lines you were saying.” She looked at the Lieutenant. “And we’ve managed to create a stable system. Hero teams, working independently but not isolated. Individual heroes, from the neighborhoods and streets up to a fleet of drones in the sky. We’re a microcosm of society as a whole, and we’ve made it work.”
“Despite the fact that we’re punching up most of the time,” Shooting Star said, picking it up. “We don’t have anyone with Paragon or Freya’s sheer power. Iconoclasts like Nightstick can’t take root over the entire city because we’re too idiosyncratic for that. Northlyn and Midtown wouldn’t all fall in line behind one guy, and even if they did Catarins or Bodjwick would never follow suit.”
“And… it’s a meritocracy,” Church said, frowning. “A real one, not based on class or status. I’m richer than honestly anyone has any right being. Rodent over there? Clearly knows the great taste of ramen better than most. But we’ve established she’s better at this than I am, because it’s not about the money.” He paused. “Well, not entirely about the money. Money helps.”
“I eat vegetables,” Mierra snapped at Church. “Believe it or not? Smart shopping, a little planning, and actually cooking goes way farther than a salt-lick noodle brick pack.”
“…god I could go for a Cup Noodle right now,” Antonym muttered.
Church looked at Mierra sharply, but couldn’t hold back his smile. She was beginning to get it. Church liked to bite. He respected being bitten back.
Everyone called Mierra a rat. Well, one thing was certain. If you got a rat angry? They bit you.
“So tie this up for us,” Doctor Astonishing said. “Are you looking to recruit us into Justice Wing? I’m not certain that would fit most of us. I certainly couldn’t begin to adjust the Alliance’s activities to reflect some national agenda.”
“Recruit, no. A strategic partnership? Yes.” The Lieutenant looked around again. “If we tried to come in and remake all of this into a Justice Wing knockoff, it’d fail. We know that. But we can connect to you… and we can help all of you connect to each other.”
“Connect… how?” Mierra asked. Her whiskers were twitching a bit — she believed the Lieutenant’s intentions were good, but still wasn’t sure if she liked the sound of this.
“The Grantham institute is being overseen by Justice Wing,” the Lieutenant said, “but it’s headed up by Truncheon. He’s the best person for the job — he’s actually gone through the whole process. He’ll be working hand in hand with Senior Special Agent Lillian Tartikoff of DETAILS. That’ll give the program government oversight, but not tie the Institute’s hands or lead to registration or anything like it.” He looked around again. “Oversight wouldn’t work here, of course. But Justice Wing can liaise with you. Have a representative work with you, and let you organize and set up an appropriate alliance. Maybe some folks would be part of that alliance all the time, but most of the rest of you would just have it if you needed to call for backup or get ahold of specialized resources.”
“And similarly,” Freya added, “that alliance would have a DETAILS representative working with it. Not intruding on any of your individual activities — but again giving sufficient official connection to keep the government happy and add a legitimacy. To prevent questions of quis custodiet ipsos custodes from ever coming up.” Freya looked off to the side. “Some people are so touchy about that.”
“We’d get a chance to see your interplay at work — to have a more formal understanding of a place where the process has worked at least so far.” The Lieutenant sounded intent. “And we’d have a chance to get more involved here in Empire City and with all of you, without coming in and taking over — or looking like we’re taking over, for that matter.”
“Let’s go back to this ‘DETAILS representative,’” Antonym said. “Because not gonna lie — that sounds like it could suck. I’ve met Tartikoff before. Not a fan. How do we know we could trust this other guy?”
“We trust her,” Freya said. “I trust her. With my life and the lives of those I care for. She has proven herself.”
“Oh, well that makes me feel all better,” Antonym snapped.
“To answer your question,” the Lieutenant said, “it would be Special Agent Lynette Hardesty. She’d officially transfer to Empire City’s DETAILS field office, but she’d be assigned to… well, wherever you would want to set up shop.”
“Hardesty?” Church asked, eyebrows up. “Hardesty? The redheaded jumpsuit aficionado who talks to calculators?” He shook his head. “We have a history, you know.”
“Red hair, tight clothes, and you have a history with her?” Sprite asked. “Why am I so not surprised.”
“She doesn’t have red hair any more,” Freya said, idly. “There have been some changes.”
“She spends a lot of time with you Justice Wingers,” Doctor Astonishing said. “Does she also count as the Justice Wing liaison?”
“No,” the Lieutenant answered. “Too much potential for conflict of interest. She’s always officially been an affiliate of ours, not a member. But like Freya said — I’d trust her with my life… and more importantly, with my secrets.”
“Well la di da,” Antonym sniped. “Whatever. So who’d be the liaison, then?”
The Lieutenant shifted, not quite uncomfortable. “Well. I was hoping that could be me.”
There was a long pause.
“Seriously?” Shooting Star asked. “I mean… I thought you were all about Monument City.”
“I love Monument City,” the Lieutenant said. “I’ve spent my life there. But… that’s part of my point. I spent my life there. I was a beat cop in the thirties. From the nineteen fifties until my sixty-fifth birthday I was fighting a war against Boss Delgato. Then I was given a second chance… Delgato’s old machine is down. Giordano’s replacement is down. There are at least moderately honest politicians in the government and on the police force. They don’t need me the way they used to. And with Freya close to hand and a couple of up and comers in Monument proper… they don’t need me crowding things. I have more reputation than I deserve.” He laughed, lightly. “I… want to see new places. New things. Not just with Justice Wing — I want to live someplace new. And… well, Rodent said it. I was born in Bodjwick. I remember being six years old and walking down to watch the Royal Giants play baseball.”
“The Royal Giants moved to Las Bendiciones,” Shooting Star said. “Like… forty years ago or something. You might have trouble walking to their games from Bodjwick.”
“Yeah, and I’m pretty sure italian ices aren’t a nickel any more either,” the Lieutenant said. “I’m not trying to go back to my childhood, here. And… since New York State and Empire City both signed onto that Deputization I got a couple years back, I have some police powers here…”
“Yeah, think about it,” Church said. “Rents aren’t a nickel these days either. Hey, Ant.” He nodded towards the other end of the lounge.
“Subtle, Colin.” The black-suited Guardian pushed up, following Church out of immediate earshot.
“I swear I’ll never understand their relationship,” Bauchan muttered.
“Are they in a relationship?” Freya asked, quietly. “I can see they care about each other a great deal.”
“Formally or romantically? No way,” Shooting Star murmured. “They broke up so hard I think it set Central Park on fire. But I think she’s closer to him than anyone else.”
Rodent dropped her head down a bit, tuning them out. Most rodents survived in a predator filled world by keeping a sense of their surroundings at all times. Among other things, that meant hearing much better than human beings. She tried not to eavesdrop most of the time.
Most of the time.
“Jesus, Colin,” Antonym whispered. “Lay off Rodent, wouldja? She’s a good kid. She and Jetgirl hang, and Topaz likes her, and I like her too. And she saved my fucking life once, so—“
“Calm down, Mandalora. She’s not fragile.” He was whispering back, of course. “Granted, her powers cheat more than yours, and I didn’t think that was possible. But I figured she had spunk and now I know.”
“Spunk. Nice. Also?” She pointed at her mask. “Mask. Dumb suit with exclamation point. Codename. Stop with the Mandalora crap. So…”
“Yeah. So what do you think?”
“About all this? Justice Wing? Cop-Man and Norse Chick and bloody Hardesty?”
“Wait — I know I have baggage, but what’s your problem with her?”
“You mean besides your baggage still having my socks and underwear in it because your baggage happened when we were engaged?”
“She didn’t know we were engaged. She didn’t know we were dating. If you want to be pissed, be pissed at me.”
“I am pissed at you. I will never not be pissed at you. That doesn’t mean I’ll be happy to see her perfect little jumpsuited butt all the time.” She sighed. “But we should grab this thing.”
“Colin, we knew something was gonna happen, sooner or later. Empire City’s Empire City. That meant we got away with handling parahuman shit ourselves for a long time, without having Paragon or the Ancient Mariner or Freya knocking over all the applecarts in the process. That wasn’t gonna last and you know it. Shoot’s gonna take this. Astonishing’ll take it because he’ll figure that gives him control over access to his gang. And the Lieutenant’s one of the good ones. He’s the best we could hope for. If we don’t do this, then when tensions boil over — and they will — then we’ll take it on the chin because we don’t have Justice Wing ties.”
“I’m well aware.” Church sighed. “The worse part is, I believe them. They really think we have their answers. I don’t think they understand how badly we’ve fucked things up and how often we’ve done it.”
“I dunno. I think they expect that. I honestly think that the way we deal with is part of their solution. Or so they hope.”
“Foolhardy’s going to freak.”
“I know. He’ll hate this. He’ll fight it. He’ll sulk. Especially with the Justice Winger literally being a cop. But if the Lieutenant and Nightstick can survive on a team together…”
“Yeah. Yeah, okay. If I ask you to follow my lead, will you laugh your ass off?”
“Yeah, but I’ll keep it quiet.”
The two heroes jumped. Rodent managed not to, but only by falling back on the ‘freeze-so-the-hawk-doesn’t-get-you’ instinct. She refused to call it ‘tharn.’ That was a rabbit thing.
The third whisperer was Upsilon, who’d melted out of the shadows near the other two. Antonym had rounded on her. “What are you doing,” she hissed.
“I was bored,” Upsilon whispered back. “You’re right, by the way. Doc’s gonna support this. He won’t let them set up shop at our place, but he’ll support this. He’ll think he can use this to put up baffles between whatever he’s doing and anyone actually understanding it. Sonata’ll do it because she wants on a team, bad. I keep thinking she’ll leave Terry, move to Evergreen City or something, and shoot for Justice Wing, but Terry’ll think this is his chance to get his crap together and she’ll stick around for it. Honestly, that terrible relationship surviving longer’s the one real downside of this whole thing.”
“Yeah, well. I worry about him,” Church whispered. “You’re right that she needs to get gone, but… if nothing else this’ll give us more of a chance to keep an eye on him when she does it.”
“Yeah,” Antonym muttered. “Maybe if he’s got people around him — a lab and a job that isn’t that old place out in Westchester County—“
“Okay, lead following time, you two. Come on.”
Mierra watched as Antonym and Church walked back over. Upsilon? Was just gone. As usual. “All right,” Church said to the Lieutenant. “Obviously we need to check with the others who aren’t here, but tentatively…”
“Tentatively this whole thing’s a crock,” Antonym snapped. Church turned sharply, looking at her, but she continued. “Look, do I respect you guys in Justice Wing? Frankly, I don’t much respect anyone, but I respect you guys as much as I’d say I respect anyone outside of my own city or team. But… honestly, things come too easy to you. They always have.”
“I wouldn’t say our travails have been simple,” Freya said, coolly. “And I’d flatly reject the idea that yours have been harder. But if you would like to contend with Hecate and her legions alone, please. Feel free to best what I’ve done.”
“Totally not what I meant, and you should know that.” Antonym looked at Freya, and then the Lieutenant. “You live with a moral certainty I’d love to have in my own life. McCallister? You have always fought the corrupt and the dark, and for decades before parahuman abilities were known you fought the good fight against impossible odds. I’m not saying that’s nothing. But if you want to live in Empire City, you have to be ready for the times when the syndicate’s doing the best things for the city ‘cause the police are the real evil. Which happened to Foolhardy. Or you have to be ready to choose between the freedom of one innocent person or the lives of a hundred thousand. Which happened to the Cavalier over there. We do that daily, it feels like. In part because… I dunno. I met Paragon once. And…”
“And?” Freya asked, softly.
“I lied before. I know he’s not a freak. He’s completely not a freak, or a pocket bad guy, or harboring a secret agenda. I know that, because I opposed him, for just a moment — a terrible, horrible moment where I learned what it was to be Paragon’s opposite. He’s good through and through. He won’t ever abuse his power because he doesn’t have it in him. He won’t ever value his own life over anyone’s — even someone we find irredeemably evil. I swear to God, it’s like someone took all the power of Captain Prestige and then gave it to Mister Rogers!”
Freya opened her mouth, then considered. “That… is actually a fair assessment,” she said.
“I know it is.” She looked around herself. “And that describes no one in this room, lady. Not me, not Shoot, not Doc Astonishing, and God knows not Church. Every one of us lives with temptation, and makes mistakes, and does our best to move on afterward. I sometimes spend a day fighting to help people every minute of every day, and when I go to bed I lie awake and I remember what it was like to be Paragon’s opposite, and God help me I want it. I want that power, that utter lack of responsibility and scruple. That complete and total disregard for anyone or anything beyond my own goal. None of you people know what that’s like, but I’d lay odds every one of us does. So this whole thing’s a crock, because you’re coming here to learn from us.” She paused. “But I literally can’t think of a better idea, so I’m in. Church’s the detail man.”
Church paused for a long moment. “Following my lead, eh?” he asked.
“The only way I know how.” Antonym walked back over to the couch, dropping back down onto it.
“…all right,” the Lieutenant said. “Given—“
“My God you’re arrogant,” Freya said, with a hint of a smile.
Antonym shrugged. “Never claimed not to be.”
“Oh, I realize. But still. It takes a special kind of hubris to literally claim moral superiority on the basis of innate moral inferiority. And let us not kid ourselves — that is exactly what you’re doing, Antonym. You are finding virtue in flaw. And you are far from the first. As long as men and women have sat around fires, extolling legends and searching for what is right and what is sin, there have been those who despise the virtuous as weak because they do not know temptation.” Freya walked forward, energy flowing around her… and Mierra felt her hair restiffening and her body locking. This was predation incarnate, and there wasn’t a thing Mierra could do. “Your sort talks and talks about how idols are too good, too perfect — that such a thing isn’t attainable by normal people. That those who claim it are lying, as though it were sinful to live one’s life as a role model. It’s an excuse. You lie in your bed yearning for the corrupt power you so-briefly felt and decide that makes you worth despising, and then project that self-hatred onto me and mine because we do not appear to suffer from it.” Her eyes narrowed as she looked at Antonym. “You’ve no idea what temptations I’ve resisted, what horrors I’ve seen, what husbands I’ve lost, what prices I’ve paid for power, for greed, for misnamed wisdom. And you think that I couldn’t possibly understand the naked face of this city, or know what it’s like to overcome my own flaws and strive for my own ideals, because it comes so easily to me.”
“Freya—“ the Lieutenant said—
“This man,” Freya snapped, pointing at the Lieutenant, “spent his life fighting and losing against a man who held the city he loved in a death grip. He then nearly died saving that man’s daughter. He didn’t hesitate. You think that means he lacked the temptation to hesitate. After this, his enemy offered him any boon. He refused. And you think that means he lacked the temptation to accept. And most of all, he survived in a city of corruption and greed and crime as a police officer for fifty years, and you have the gall to suggest he never had to make a compromise, or a choice? And you think that because you saw within yourself what was needed to be Paragon’s opposite, you understood what Paragon himself was? Paragon struggles every day, you fool. He yearns to help everyone, to protect everyone. From ourselves as much as from evil. And he has the power to do it. But he doesn’t. He lets us make our own mistakes, and when he fails, he accepts his failure and tries again. And you’re so convinced you’re nothing like him… when you held power equal to his in your hand and then gave it up because the price was too great?”
“Are you finished?” Antonym said, through clenched teeth.
“Almost.” Freya looked at Mierra. “You. Why?”
Mierra blinked. “W-what?”
“Cavalier said that you embodied this city — its drive to help others even if they show you disdain. This need to do your best, to sacrifice yourself in their name. And apparently, this drive to do the right thing in the face of all temptation, as though you were one of us instead of what Antonym and Church claim Empirical heroes are. Why? Why do you do it?” Her eyes narrowed. “I think there are some in this room who need to hear it.”
Mierra shivered, slightly. “I… was a kid. More than I am now. Before I had my power. Before most everything. I was selfish, and stupid, and made bad choices.”
“As most children do, in their own way.”
“Yeah, well… there was a couple. They were kind to me. And then, when terrible things happened, they saved me. They saved me, and one died, and the other was hospitalized and dying. My parents were already dead — I had been bouncing around foster homes. I’d never seen anything like this.
“And I sat there at his bedside, and I asked him, crying my eyes out. I asked what I could do to repay him. Because I’d always known that you paid your debts or you got a beatdown.” Mierra’s voice felt distant to herself, but it was strong, with no tears — even though she’d never told this story to anyone. “And he told me I couldn’t. I could never repay him. I could never balance the books with him. Because that’s not how life worked. He and his wife — they’d given me a gift and expected nothing in return, and he’d accept nothing in return either. All I could do… all I could do… is pay it forward. To give to others what was given to me.”
“And haven’t you?” Freya asked, softly. “Haven’t you paid that debt forward in full?”
“Of course not,” Mierra said. “I’ll never finish paying it forward because I continue to be alive. That gift of life continues. As long as it does… then I’m going to pay it forward whenever and however I can. Because the truth is, paying it forward still can’t pay back my debt to them, and they wouldn’t take it if it could.”
Freya looked at Mierra for a long moment, then looked at Antonym. “You looked at Paragon, and opposed him, and saw power and selfishness in opposition. But Paragon would tell you he’s no better than you, or me, or Rodent. And everything she just said embodies everything he stands for. And if you can look at us, and see icons who never know sin while desperately trying not to succumb to our own temptations? Then the first lesson you can teach us is how to connect to the people we protect better, because you clearly don’t know us at all, and that’s clearly our fault.”
There was a long lull, before Church snorted. “And what do we get out of this again?”
The Lieutenant looked at Church. “If nothing else? Maybe, between now and whenever we each find what we’re looking for, you’ll learn that hurting someone else to take the measure of their worth diminishes your own. But that’s just a guess.”
Church looked startled, then scowled. “Anyway,” he said. “We have three bases of operations, but the Guardians are pretty close in, and Doc Astonishing tends to need everything he’s got. But we’ve got lots of room to expand here in Churchyard Court, and facilities we can use to research and manufacture what we don’t already have. As it works out, I’ve got plenty of cash to fund this shindig.” He looked at the Lieutenant. “I’d suggest taking my offer of a room, if you want to actually afford to live in this city.”
“I’ll accept it,” the Lieutenant said.
“There is clearly still tension here,” Doctor Astonishing said. “While I and my Astonishing Alliance are more than willing to participate, are we certain that this can work?”
The Lieutenant looked at Doctor Astonishing, then snickered. “Nope,” he said. “But that’s no reason not to try.”
“So, what do we call this experiment?” Sprite asked, even as she reduced back down into her tiny fae form — her voice ringing and echoing but just as loud as when she was full sized. “After all, branding is important.”
Church hehed. “It sounds like we’re all trying to reach higher for something. Wouldn’t that sum it up? This is Empire City, and New York State. How about Project Excelsior?”
Mierra’s whiskers twitched.
“You have a better idea?” Bauchan asked Mierra, softly.
“I… no. But… ‘Project’ anything sounds… cold. If we’re trying to avoid alienating the people… how about just… the Excelsiors? Like the Protectors, out west — but us.”
“I don’t think ‘Excelsior’ can be a noun,” Shooting Star said thoughtfully. “It’s pretty much an adjective.”
“No, it’s been a noun before,” Antonym replied. She still looked unhappy, but seemed to be putting it behind her too. “Referring to a mattress stuffing made of wood shavings.”
“Now that is a rank and affiliation to celebrate in song and story,” Freya said with a slight smile. “The Excelsiors. That sounds right to me.”
“What does that matter?” Antonym asked. “You’re not going to be part of this — McCallister is.”
Freya smiled a bit more. “Remember saying that. Jayce, I believe we need to report back in and give the Excelsiors a chance to plan.”
“Right.” The Lieutenant looked around. “I think there’s a lot of good we can do together. I’m sure there’s a lot I and the rest of us in Justice Wing can learn from you. And… I hope there’s a lot you can learn from us, too.”
“Yeah, well, first I need to learn to spell ‘Excelsior,’” Church said. “Before you go — I want to talk about your other plan. The Institute. My son’s actually just about the right age for it, if I’m reading you right…”
“That’s our cue,” Shooting Star murmured. “Antonym, are you ready?”
Antonym paused, looking at Freya. “Yeah,” she muttered. “Yeah I totally am.”
“Right. Rodent? Can we offer you a ride?”
Rodent blinked. “Oh — yeah,” she said. “I’d actually like that a lot. Thanks.” She’d just been reminded of the Institute they were planning… given the strain she was having in her current foster home…
…though that would mean leaving Empire City. She wasn’t really sure about that.
“All right. C’mon,” Antonym said. “We’ll take the express all the way down — avoid the morons at the door.”
Mierra looked at Church, Freya, and the Lieutenant, talking together in the corner. She could listen in, of course—
No, she’d done enough of that. Time to go. Despite everything, she still had homework tonight, after all. And tomorrow would be tomorrow.
An hour later, Colin Church was watching as the Justice Wing Gyrfalcon class transport lifted off from one of his launch bays. The Lieutenant was taking it back by himself — Freya had other business and had flown off using her own wings.
He turned, and walked over to his wet bar, taking out an old-fashioned glass and dropping ice cubes in before picking up the heavy glass decanter of bourbon. “If you’re going to come out, you should do it now,” he said. “Otherwise, I’m likely to have two or three of these.”
“Well, that would be fun,” Upsilon said, melting and shaping back into view. She sounded cheerful, and certainly didn’t look surprised that Church had known she was there.
“So. You have a comment? An insight? A tantalizing little clue? A bad joke?”
“Why limit myself?” She set her hand down on the wet bar, and a pool of darkness seemed to ooze out, until it formed a rectangular shape. Lifting her hand, the darkness evaporated into mist and was gone, leaving a file folder.
Church opened the folder. It was a copy of a school record. A transcript, from Millard Fillmore High School up in Northlyn. MCCALL, MIERRA it read, with a picture of a young black girl — probably out of date. Straight A student right up through mid-eighth grade, when things started to slip. Concerns that she might have ADHD, or clinical depression. Some concerns by some teachers of drug use. Notes sent home to foster parents, expressing concerns of different sorts and a lackadaisical attitude.
“Well, I’m pretty sure me reading this breaks all kinds of laws,” Church said. “Doctor Livingstone Rodent, I presume?”
“Correct as usual, King Friday.” Upsilon peered over his shoulder, her hair refracting the light from the toggle-switches on the bar. “She struggles to keep up. She’ll probably graduate with a B to C average, and go to an average college.”
“When she’s way above average,” Church murmured. “I got that. So why are you telling me?”
“You know what her classmates did tonight? The Roosevelt Three Hour Robotics Challenge and Competition. Some good scholarship money available, especially for underrepresented minorities and populations in engineering and STEM. You know what Mierra Mccall did in it? A big fat nothing. But she had a chance to listen to you neg her for a while then build her back up. I’m sure that has her raring to go on this whole plan.”
Church sipped his bourbon. “She skipped this to come here?”
“What? No! What, are you crazy? She skipped it to fight Dragontail. You know, on that footage you took?”
Church frowned, looking at the file. “Paying it forward on credit’s asinine. She needs to balance her own needs to the world’s.”
“Yeah, well. I’m sure the foster parents who died saving her would have taken the time to teach her that. They only had time for one lesson, though. Some of the foster folks who followed were crappy, others okay but had no way to connect to her. Her current foster home’s frustrated with her terrible attitude and laziness, because that’s what she is, right?”
“How did those foster parents die, anyway?”
“SCYLLA attacked the science museum they were visiting. They were after one of the exhibits – a chunk of meteor or something.”
“I remember that. I was the one who tracked the meteor back down.” Church sipped his bourbon. “What happened to her birth parents?”
“Pack of robbers pulled her parents from their home in Lewiston, South Northlyn when she was two years old. Just after midnight, on the first of the year. There was a shootout with police. Parents killed in the crossfire. The police of the time weren’t too worried about killing a low income black couple. Happy New Year, huh?”
Church snorted. “So why are you telling me this?”
“I dunno.” Upsilon turned to look at Church. “I mean, she’s the real hero. You’re just faking it. She has the heart and the drive. All you have is several billion dollars and a Vanderbilt Ave skyscraper. Oh, and all those sweet jets. Hey, can I have a jet?”
The Murrillo Household, Varian Ave
East Northlyn, Borough of Northlyn
Empire City, New York
The Murrillo family lived in a white wood and red brick house with a garage at the base, and two floors above, next to eight other identical houses. Al and Nora kept a nice enough house, and had always considered keeping a foster child as just part of passing on the blessings of their good lives, not having the ability to have children of their own.
Some of those kids had problems, and not all of them were good fits. Mierra knew that. They also knew that some had turned out great. She knew the Murrillos really did like her, and thought she had all the tools to succeed.
That was what disappointed them so much. Just like it had disappointed the Roebuck family before them, and the Alfords before them.
Early on, Mierra had dreamed that she’d find a set of foster parents who she could open up to — could tell her secret, to bring them in. But there had always been that divide. She knew it was her own fault. The lies that were required to let her save lives as Rodent meant no foster family, good or bad, could get close enough for Mierra to trust them.
Still. It wasn’t too late in the evening, and she was going straight in to do her homework. It was quiet so far tonight. Hopefully her predator ping wouldn’t drive her to the streets before she got everything done. She wished she’d been able to find a rodent that didn’t need to sleep so she could cut down her own, but rodents were actually among the animals that needed the most sleep in the animal kingdom.
She walked in. There was the smell of cooked tomatoes — dinner smelled like some kind of pasta. There’d be a pot on the stove. “Hey there,” she called out. She knew Al and Nora were in — she could feel them in the kitchen.
“Mierra!” Nora shouted. “Get in here!”
Mierra felt a cold chill in her stomach, pausing. The problem with being able to sense predation as a warning? Predation was far from the worst thing that could happen to you. There was no way to predict a tongue lashing for her own good.
“‘Kay!” She tried to figure out what they were mad about. Chores? She’d taken out the garbage and recycling and washed the breakfast dishes. Grades wouldn’t be out for three weeks and she was pretty sure there hadn’t been any need for a Parent/Teacher Conference….
Mierra pushed into the small kitchen. The Murrillos were both on the heavy-set side, having headed into an amiable enough middle age. “What’s up,” she asked, a bit nervously.
“That’s what we want to know,” Nora said.
“Wh… what do you—“
“This afternoon, I get a call from Mister Dawson at your school,” Al said. “He says that a slot had opened up at the last second for the Roosevelt Competition, and that you would fit, and that your friend Roberta said you had agreed to take it. He needed me to fax a permission slip. So I did, because I was excited.”
“Y-yeah,” Mierra said. “I… I didn’t actually say I’d—“
“An hour and a half later, during a break, Mister Dawson calls me,” Al continued. “You never showed up to the bus. I called Nora, and she swung by the house and you weren’t here. In fact, we don’t know where you were. Again.”
“I was… I had—“
“We’ve heard it before,” Nora said. “Mierry — this could have been worth a lot of college money! Where do you think college money is going to come from, eh? Good colleges cost!”
“If you make it into one with the grades you’ve been getting,” Al cut in. “And we spoke to the school office, and you’re not in any other extracurriculars.”
“If you don’t have grades all you have left is extracurriculars!” Nora said. “You know this! We tell you this! But—“
“Look,” Mierra said, choked up. “I’m… I’m sorry.”
“We know,” Al said. “You’re always sorry. Mierra — you’re the smartest kid we ever fostered, but you won’t work at it. You won’t show up. Sometimes I think you just wander the streets all day!”
“And that doesn’t even count when you barely come home or don’t come home at all!” Nora said. “We have rules. We don’t have them to be mean but because—“
“Mrs. Murrillo,” Mierra tried to break in. “I know — I know I’ve been a disappointment—“
“Yes,” Al said. “Yes you have. That is exactly the word. What do we do? How do we get through to you? This is your future, and you won’t follow it—”
Mierra froze, trying not to show her surprise on her face. A pair of people were walking up to the front door to ring the bell. Religious? She wasn’t getting a predator ping—
“Are you even listening?!” Nora demanded.
“Yes — yes! I’m sorry. I… I’m sorry, I—“
The doorbell rang, right on time. “I’ll get it,” Mierra said.
“You’ll stay right here, young lady!” Al snapped. “I’ll get it!” He pushed his chair back from the yellow kitchen table and headed out to answer the door.
Nora watched him go. There was still no sense of predation. Nora took a few deep breaths. She’d reacted like this to the Mormons who sometimes came through evangelizing — that was probably what this was, too. Still, she never got used to this particular feeling.
“Al believes in you, you know,” Nora said. “He believes in you, and he gets so disappointed.”
“I know,” Mierra said. “Mrs. Murrillo… I…” she shook her head, tears dotting her eyes. “I get it. You two have done way more than you had to do. And I know — I know. There are a lot of foster kids in the system waiting for a placement, and if I’m gonna screw this up—”
“Dios mío, girl,” Nora said. “Do you really think that’s all we care about?” She was shaking her head as she spoke.
Mierra bit her lip. “No,” she said. “That’s what makes disappointing you so painful.”
“Then… why, Mierra? Tell me that. Your teacher, Miss Walken. She thinks it is drugs, but I’ve seen kids on drugs before and that’s not you. Are you in trouble? Did some… some man get his hooks in you?” Pimp, she meant. Mierra knew that.
“It’s… nothing like that. Really. I wouldn’t and—“
The kitchen door pushed open, and Al stepped in. “…ladies, could you come out into the living room? We have guests.” He looked surprised, but not upset.
“Guests?” Nora asked.
“They’ll have to… you have to hear it from them,” he said. “I’m still not sure this isn’t a dream.”
There were, as Mierra already knew, two of them. A man and a woman, both black, both wearing black suits with white shirts and green and blue striped ties. From first glance, Mierra would have still guessed Mormons, though she’d never seen a mixed gender pair and honestly had never seen women doing the door-to-door mission, though all that meant was Mierra hadn’t seen it. It didn’t matter, since that’s not who they were.
“Hello,” the woman said, standing and offering a hand to Nora and then Mierra. They both shook. She had a light accent Mierra couldn’t place, but Mierra could feel she’d lived in Empire City for at least eight years. “I’m Leslie Ellison, Strategic Outreach Director for the Church Industries International Cavalry. This is Alexander Pope, our I.T. and systems coordinator.”
“I’m Nora Murrillo and this is my foster daughter Mierra Mccall. And… Alexander Pope?” Nora asked. “Each finding like a friend, something to blame, and something to commend?” She smiled as she spoke.
“Nice,” Pope said, grinning as he stood and shook both their hands as well. “I usually get something from The Rape of the Lock or if I’m lucky The Dunciad, not one of the epistles. But please – call me Andy. It’s nice to meet you both.”
“Indeed,” Ellison said. “To catch you up — earlier this year Ms. Mccall submitted a programming sample to our Junior Technology Achievers project. We look for bright, talented students with a passion for technology and encourage them, through scholarships, special tutorials, summer camps, internships — all sorts of things. Due to a misfiling, her submission was lost for some time and she wasn’t properly considered.”
“We’re really impressed with Mierra’s skills,” Pope added. “Honestly, you don’t see a lot of real innovation in code people submit to us. They’re either trying to show off or they’re recycling. Mierra’s approach is direct and shows a lot of clarity.”
“We’ve been encouraging her to pursue programming,” Al said. He gave Mierra the side-eye. “We were just discussing that when you dropped by.”
“I’ll come to the point,” Ellison said. “We’d like Mierra to come to an in-city summer camp when her school term ends.”
“She’d have a chance to develop her skills, get some extra credit, build up some scholarship money if she does well — not to mention get some transcript fodder for college,” Pope said with enthusiasm.
“In city summer camp? Where?”
“Oh, right in Churchyard Court. She’d get room and board, and even a stipend.”
“That’s… that’s amazing,” Mierra said. “I…”
Mierra couldn’t quite keep the wince from her face — someone else was in the house. Someone was in her room! She could feel it.
“I’m sorry,” Mierra said. “May I be excused? I just have to run to the bathroom.”
Al snickered. “Happened to me in my first job interview,” he said.
“I expect we have a number of things to discuss with your foster parents,” Ellison said. “They’d probably appreciate a chance to talk in private.”
There wasn’t a place in this house Mierra couldn’t eavesdrop from if she wanted to, but right now she wasn’t interested in that. “Great — I’ll be back in a few.” She stepped out into the hall and bounded up the stairs, almost silently. She was crouched down as she approached her door — holding back her transformation… she was at a fraction of her power without it, but…
She felt the presence — it was definitely foreign to her room but not unknown. Stranger…ish to her? No predator ping but that wasn’t a hundred percent. Of course, she had her own suspicions…
Mierra pushed the door open and jumped back.
Colin Church was standing in the room. He was in the Cavalier Hardsuit that he wore when he encapsulated and connected to one of his vehicles, though his helmet was sitting on Mierra’s desk.
“…yeah, called that one,” Mierra murmured.
“Mind coming in?” Church asked, quietly. “Maybe shutting the door?”
Mierra stepped into the room, still wary, and pushed the door shut.
“Thanks,” Church said, walking over to the door. Mierra darted back to the far corner of the room, near the windows, almost blurring. “Touchy — I thought I’d be on the positive side of your little friend, fight or flight not-pee experience.” He pressed a small tapered dome to the door, and a suction cup sealed it there and a green light came on with a quiet hum. Mierra could still hear the sound of talking downstairs, of course — but as the device kicked in that muffled almost completely. “Just a little precaution, since I gather the… Murrillos? Don’t understand that the pack-rat they took in was a little more literal than they thought.”
The description was accurate enough. Bits of scavenged technology, books, notebooks and the like were on every surface and crammed into every drawer of the room. It was a wonder she had room for clothes or a bed. “How’d you find me?” she asked.
“S’not my first rodeo,” Church said, smiling a bit. “Which is why I came in using stealth mode and pulled the curtains. But… stealth mode didn’t stop you, did it? You knew I was here. Seriously, I am impressed. Especially since you’ve left your fursuit in your other danskins.” He cocked his head. “How much access to the rat kingdom do you have when you’re being all human?”
“Seriously, Mister Church. I have to know. If you figured it out, then other people could figure it out and if they tracked me here then someone like Dragontail or the Hatchetman could burst in on the Murrillos.”
“Yeah, well, I’d be mysterious for a couple more minutes, but honestly? Upsilon told me. If you’ve ever, y’know, slept with the light off in here? She knew where you lived. Fortunately, her discretion is… well, generally pretty decent if not perfect.”
Mierra took another deep breath. She remembered Upsilon making reference to the Roosevelt Competition back at the security checkpoint of Churchyard Court, but things had happened so fast she hadn’t processed it. “Okay,” she said. “I didn’t know that. I didn’t know anyone—“
“You’ve seriously never told anyone? Not a best friend, or one of your foster parents? The Murrillos seem to sincerely care about you… at least, their chewing out seemed to come from a place of concern instead of anger. Oh, sorry — parabolic receivers. Invasion of privacy. We didn’t want to burst in if the scene was too bad.” He cocked his head again, looking thoughtful. “You didn’t get that one, did you? Or were you already so keyed up because of their general unhappiness with your laziness and lack of commitment that it drowned it out. That’s a valuable datapoint, after all.”
“Shut up,” Mierra muttered. She folded her arms. “This isn’t cool, Mister Church.”
“Not even a little? Okay, I’m not. I’m an asshole. But tell me the sonic baffle isn’t cool with a straight face.”
“You’re not lazy, Rodent. You’re the opposite of lazy.”
“Mister Church, I’m not kidding.”
“I know you’re not.” He looked at the helmet sitting on her desk. “Ant was pretty torqued at me tonight. Which isn’t rare. What is rare? She actually likes you.” He laughed, quietly. “Ant doesn’t like very many people. When she does, that usually means something.” He looked at Mierra. “I got called out for ragging on you by Antonym, Sprite, McCallister, and Upsilon. And got reminded that I have some things pretty easy.” He shrugged. “Seems like I should be paying that forward.”
“Yeah? I’m glad to hear it. You know what’s a great way to do that? Not bug someone’s house, then don’t break into her room.” Mierra seemed to ripple slightly, as her muscles shifted under her skin. She tamped the transformation down. “Why… why didn’t you just go to my school tomorrow? Or call? Or—”
“Why didn’t you go to the Roosevelt… thing?”
Mierra blinked. “I couldn’t. Dragontail was – people would have been hurt. Maybe died.”
“Exactly. Even though your foster parents tore you a new one, and you disappointed your friends – the price was too high.” He looked down at the floor. “Upsilon specifically brought this to me tonight, after the meeting. Not tomorrow. Tonight. And made it pretty clear that you’d paid a price to be a hero today, and then I made things worse.”
“So say a few more things go wrong. Say you argue with your foster parents. Say things you can’t take back. You were halfway to talking them into sending you back into the system. Maybe you run. Maybe you decide that assholes like me meant the whole thing isn’t worth it. I don’t know. I don’t know you yet. I just know… you’re important. To this city, to Justice Wing, to this Excelsiors plan… maybe to the world.” He looked back at her. “So I had to fix it. Tonight. Because tomorrow might be too late. Rodent—”
“Don’t call me that,” Mierra snapped. “Not here. Not… like this.”
“Yeah, well — sonic baffle. Covers the whole room. Just ‘cause I had parabolic receivers didn’t mean I want anyone else listening in.”
“Well, yeah. You get privacy.” She snorted. “Well, I can’t throw stones. I’m a hypocrite maybe but there are limits.”
“What do you mean?”
Mierra sighed. “Is her name really Mandalora?”
Church’s mouth dropped open. He then shook his head, closing it. “She goes by Mandy. How… no, wait. Of course. Rodents have great hearing, right?”
Mierra laughed uncomfortably. “Yeah, sort of. Into the ultrasound range. The Chinese pygmy dormouse echolocates like a bat. But you don’t need those. The common, everyday city rat’s got some of the best hearing of any animal.” She took a deep breath. “And sound baffle or not, don’t call me Ro— that name.”
Church half-smiled. “Message received… Mierra. If I can call you that.”
“Yeah, well. It’s my name.”
“You had to know we’d made you when Les and Andy made you their pitch. I mean, come on. Couple of people high up not just in C-Double-Eye but in the Cavalry showing up to offer you a much-coveted slot in a very exclusive summer camp in the very building you just spent a tense near-hour in tonight?”
“I had my suspicions,” Mierra admitted. “Especially since not only didn’t I submit code to your Junior Technology Achievers thing, but I never even heard of it.”
“Yeah, well — that’s because it didn’t exist two hours ago. I mean, we have a bunch of similar things. Good PR, mostly, and some chance to recruit. Which is good because we need to actually throw something together in the next three weeks so the Murrillos don’t show up and see no other teenagers.”
“And that’s where I’ll be? In camp on the fiftieth floor?” Mierra looked dubious.
“Absolutely not. That camp won’t get near 50. I think we have… a block of space we can use somewhere in the thirties.” He smiled, just a bit. “You were going to do the Grantham Institute thing, weren’t you?”
Mierra thought, then shrugged. “I was thinking about it. I mean, the Murrillos were about to send me packing anyway, and if I could get into that Institute it would beat four months of Group Home followed by another placement I’d disappoint.”
“They weren’t about to send you away. They were frustrated, because they care about you. C’mon – I could hear that and I have normal, boring hearing with admittedly state of the art parabolic receivers and noise cancellation software.” He folded his arms. “You could always just tell them where you’ve been spending your afternoons and evenings. I’m pretty sure they’d be at least relieved to learn you weren’t hooking or dealing instead of going to prestigious opportunities to show off your brain.”
“Yeah, no. What would the best-case scenario be? They develop massive pride in me, encourage me, maybe adopt me in a beautiful denouement while Journey played in the background? Come on. They’d freak. They’d demand I stop. And if I didn’t they might tell… I dunno. OCFS or my high school principal about me. It’d get out — and again. Dragontail only knew my general neighborhood and that was enough to get him blowing up minivans. If he knew my name? This house would end up a crater.”
“Maybe.” Church shrugged. “Everyone knows my name.”
“You live in the best defended castle in Midtown. They don’t. And I don’t.”
“Yeah, well — the rent’s pretty steep for the Murrillos, I admit that. I only take so many freebies.” He chuckled. “Mierra… the Institute’s a great idea for someone else. But you? One quarter of what you need from it’s so remedial the other kids would mock you, and the other three quarters you could teach. And… we may have established that you’re… you know. Our furry poster child for hero-done-right in Empire City.” Church thought about it. “Furry poster child. That’s… a mascot, right? You’re clearly our mascot.”
“You are such a jerk.”
“Asshole. Seriously. You’re an Empirical. You have to learn to swear. We have a reputation.” He chuckled again. “I’d — no joke — offer to take you in as my own foster kid, but straight truth? I am a terrible parent. Conner’s been in nothing but boarding schools since the day his mother died. Honestly, I’m hoping the Institute ends up being a better experience for him.” He half-smiled. “But maybe I’ll make an okay teammate. You can teach me something about paying it all forward.”
“Teammate? Not team leader?”
“Leader? No. I’m good at ‘boss,’ not ‘field commander.’ Ask Andy. That’ll probably end up being the Lieutenant, or maybe Sprite. I dunno. Assuming if we even have one.”
“So… a summer as an Excelsior?”
“Yeah. Well, an Excelsior who’s also cramming every non-heroic hour with tutors, exams, make-ups… GPA fodder up the wazoo. And then in September we’ll see where we are and figure out what we need to do. But you need to get back on track, Mierra Mccall — without feeling like you’re failing to protect people.”
“I’m not sure I’ll be the best hero for Midtown.”
“Midtown’s pretty well covered — but between my deployment capsules and your flying squirrel trick? I think we can drop you in a trouble spot in Northlyn within three minutes.” Church grinned. “Whatdya say, Rodent? Wanna reach higher?”
Mierra looked at Church for a long moment, then smiled, just a bit. “Excelsior,” she said. “Are you gonna just walk into my room there, too?”
“Oh, yeah. All the time. Because you know what never goes badly? A C.E.O. and billionaire walking into a fifteen year old girl’s room unannounced.” Church turned to retrieve his sonic baffle.
“And yet, here you are.” Mierra smirked. “I should grab a picture. That’d fund my college education right quick.”
“Probably. Which rodent’s good at extortion?”
“Most of them. Especially guinea pigs.”
Church laughed. “We are getting you better costuming, you know. And access to a real machine shop and a tech team for those spikethrowers of yours. I mean, I’m impressed by your flint knife and bearskin approach, but—“
“Yeah, this summer’ll be fun. I can tell already.”
“Get back downstairs,” Church said, unhooking the baffle and walking to Mierra’s desk. He picked up his helmet. “You’ve been ‘in the bathroom’ for a long, long time. Make sure you say yes to Les’s offer. I don’t want to have to make up another program on the fly.” He put his helmet on — sealing it to his suit with a hiss, and rippling into a polychromatic reflection. ‘Stealth mode.’ Which probably worked better on normal human eyes than Mierra’s.
“I’ll do what I can,” she murmured. “Safe flight.”
“God, I hope not. I have a streak going.” He stepped out the window, jumping before his jump-jets cut in nearly-silently. Well, to anyone but Mierra.
Mierra smiled, watching him bounce upward. Reaching higher.
Downstairs, she could hear the Murrillos laughing. It sounded like they were pretty happy about this ‘camp.’ “She’s so smart,” Nora was saying. “I keep hoping she’ll find something to get passionate about. She just… I worry about her focus.”
“We’re trying to give her a decent home,” Al said. “She’s had a couple foster couples who just gave up on her. I just… I know she can do great things, if someone will just stick with her.”
“We were – there was a thing tonight,” Nora said. “And she clearly believed we were going to throw her out tonight. I mean, no wonder she acts like she doesn’t care. Think about the kind of trauma and rejection she’s carrying around. Do you think your camp can give her the right attention and stability?”
“Oh, I think we’ll have lots for her to do, Mrs. Morello,” Pope said.
“She’s exactly the kind of person we’re looking for,” Ellison added.
Mierra chuckled softly, then swung out and half-skipped down the stairs. “Sorry,” she said, grinning. “How’s it going down here?”
Al and Nora glanced over. They both looked happy. They felt happy. Mierra’s senses were pretty attuned to them, to their moods. To—
To the nest. Kin recognition.
“Well, I think the Murrillos like what we have to say, Miss Mccall,” Pope said. “Do you have any questions?”
Mierra thought. “Yeah,” she said, smiling a bit more. “Just how do you get ‘Andy’ out of ‘Alexander?’”
Pope started, then smiled. “Oh, you’re going to fit in all right.”
And maybe she was.