It’s several weeks after the events of Justice Wing: The Excelsiors Reaching Higher, and Mierra McCall — aka the Rambunctious Rodent — is on her way to the in-city summer camp Colin Church (aka the high flying Cavalier) set up for her to begin training and get her school life back on track. But where Mierra expected a computer coding camp at least as a cover story, instead she finds DETAILS Special Agent Lynette Hardesty, and a unique group of teenagers, including a rather strange young girl named Vortex, an oddly mature teenager named Cosette Wight, Colin Church’s fourteen year old son, and her first step into another world.
Oh, and Trudy. She also finds Trudy.
The gateway to Justice Wing: Halcyon Days starts here.
The following takes place immediately before Justice Wing: Halcyon Days
Churchyard Court Building, Borough of Midtown
“McCall,” Al said. “Mierra McCall. M-I-E—”
“I got the spelling the last time you said it,” the security guard said. He looked bored. “She’s not on the list.”
“She has her letter of acceptance right here,” Nora snapped, thumping her finger three times on the letter that she’d put on the security station’s desk. It had the logo of the Church Industries International Cavalry across the top, and Mierra’s name in the salutation.
“Easy to fake a letter,” the second security guard said. “She’s not on the list.”
“We were told to come here today, Al snapped. “We have all her things for the summer! And now you’re telling me—“
“Who were you again?” the first guard didn’t sound any more impressed.
“Murrillo.” He looked over his clipboard. “And this is Nora?”
“Yes!” Nora half-shouted.
“Yeah, okay. You two can head on up. Take elevator seven. That’ll bring you up to the thirty-second floor.”
“Thank you,” Al snapped. “Come on, Mierra—“
“Hey!” the second guard said, pushing up out of his chair and holding his hand up. “Not her. You two.”
“…what?” Nora asked, her eyes narrowing.
“You’re on the list. She’s not.”
“We’re here to drop her off!” Nora shouted. “You can’t expect us to just leave her in the lobby!”
“It’s nothin’ to me where she goes,” the first guard said. “But she’s not going up there.”
Mierra McCall, fifteen years old, bowed her head and rubbed the bridge of her nose. This was what deja vu felt like. She was sure of it. Only, the last time this song and dance happened, Mierra had been significantly taller and covered in fur, and neither guard had any reason to know there was any correlation. She was officially here to be in the ‘Technology Junior Achievers’ in-city summer camp run by Colin Church’s organization. Unofficially? In her secret identity as Rodent she was supposed to be one of the Excelsiors — a new supergroup made up of Empire City’s heroes. Only, the last time she’d been held up in this lobby she was in her Rodent identity, and she hadn’t had any better luck then. Now…
Yeah. This was going to be a great summer.
“We’re not going to leave our daughter down here!” Nora snapped.
“Daughter?” the second guard said, looking at Mierra, then looking at the Murrillos. Mierra knew that look. That was the ‘this black girl is supposedly the daughter of you two white Italians?’ look.
“I’m their foster child,” Mierra mumbled. “This can’t be a new concept for you two.”
The first guard shrugged. “Look, it’s nothin’ to me and it’s nothin’ against her, but she’s not on the list so she’s not goin’ up there.”
“Then call someone!” Al shouted.
“They don’t do that,” Mierra said, tiredly.
“Who exactly do you want us to call?” the second guard asked.
“She’s in the Technology Junior Achievers program,” Nora said, fuming. “Call Leslie Ellison or Andy Pope. They’re the ones—“
“Oh, right. Hey, let’s get Ellison on the line,” the second guard said, laughing. “I’m sure that’ll go well.”
Mierra wasn’t surprised at the reaction. Leslie Ellison was the Strategic Outreach Director of the Cavalry, and the Cavalry was the ‘super-heroic’ arm of Church Industries — the one that was best known for Colin Church — aka the Cavalier — himself. Of course they could call her office. Or they could call the program’s office. Or they could call any number of people. But they wouldn’t, because they didn’t have to. “Just go up,” she said. “I’ll wait in the outer lobby and they’ll call down and have me sent up.”
“No,” Al said. “This is absurd. We have—“
“Go up or don’t,” the first guard said. “But please step aside either way. Hello there! Can we help you?”
Mierra turned. There was a small queue that had formed — no shock, since visitors all had to check in before they could access the upper-level elevators at Churchyard Court. The two people behind them were clearly mother and daughter — the mother looked almost sleek. Deep red hair, teased out. Pale pink skin with pink undertones — proper ginger. Perfect cheekbones. For some reason she was wearing a flight suit — a slightly loose zippered jumpsuit, effectively. The name HARDESTY was embroidered on a patch over her heart, under a pair of embroidered pilot wings. Next to her was a girl — maybe thirteen or fourteen? Similar facial structure and already beginning to fill out, wearing a green t-shirt and jeans, with coppery colored hair, a more beige skin tone with cool undertones. Biracial — Asian father, probably, from her look.
Mierra blinked, looking again. Wait… her hair didn’t look coppery. It looked… copper.
“Hi there,” the mother said, smiling. “I think we’re here for the same reason they are — I’m Lynette Hardesty and this is my daughter Delia Temple? We’re here for the Technology Junior Achievers program. But you should finish with them first. We’re in no rush.”
“Hardesty,” the second guard said, looking at his clipboard. “Yup! You two are cleared for elevator four. That’ll take you to thirty-two. Have a good—“
“Seriously,” Hardesty said, her smile tightening a bit. “I think you should finish with the Murrillos and Ms. McCall first. We’ll ride up with them.”
“Might be a long wait,” Mierra muttered.
“See, that’s not productive,” the first guard said.
“Is this ‘Delia Temple’ on the list? Or just Ms. Hardesty?” Al demanded.
“That’s none of your business,” the second guard snapped. “I’m going to have to ask you two to either head up or leave. And as for her—“
“Because if she’s not on the list, and you just take Ms. Hardesty at her word, then I’m pretty sure this is racism,” Al kept said.
“Al, don’t,” Mierra said, closing her eyes. He was right, of course. It may have started as Mierra’s usual luck flaring up, but at this point this was all about race. But you picked your battles. Every black girl in Empire City knew that.
“All right, that’s enough,” the first guard said, angry now. “You three are causing a disturbance. I’m going to have to ask you all to leave, right now.”
“She has an invitation!” Nora shouted again, slamming her hand on Mierra’s letter again.
The second guard picked up the phone, pressing a red button. “We need backup in the main lobby,” he said into the receiver.
“By all means call security,” Hardesty snapped, sliding a black billfold out of a pocket Mierra hadn’t even realized that flight suit had. She flipped it open — ID on the top, gold badge on the bottom. “Special Agent Lynette Hardesty, United States Department of Extranormal Tabulation, Analysis, Investigation, Lockdown and Supervision. I demand to see your supervisor, the program director of the Junior Technology Achievers program, and Colin Church in this lobby in the next ten minutes or I’m calling in my backup. You know. The ones who investigate civil rights violations? Are you two paying attention?”
The two guards froze.
“And I’m two for two,” Mierra muttered again. “Deja vu doesn’t begin to cover it.”
“Hi,” the other girl — Delia Temple — said, smiling brightly and holding her hand out to Mierra. “I’m Delia! Are you in the program, too?”
Mierra blinked. The metal-haired girl seemed pretty unfazed by all this. She slowly reached out and took Delia’s hand, shaking it. Delia’s hand sparked a bit — mild static electricity. “Mierra McCall,” she said. “And yeah. Theoretically.”
The second guard had hung up the phone. “There’s… no need to be hasty,” he said. “I’m sure we can work all this out, miss—“
“Let’s go with ‘Special Agent,’ shall we? Agent for short.” Hardesty didn’t sound amused. She cocked her head, very slightly.
Delia blinked and grinned. “She’s making a phone call in her head,” she whispered to Mierra. “I love when she does that!”
Mierra blinked. “…are… you supposed to tell me that?” she asked.
Delia blinked, too, looking surprised. “Is that a problem?”
The phone on the desk rang.
“Answer that,” Hardesty said to the guards, even as she slipped her badge back in her near-invisible pocket.
The second guard picked up the phone. “Front lo—“
There was a blast of yelling from the receiver. Mierra flushed a bit. Even when she was in fully human form, her hearing was quite a bit better than human normal. She could hear what was being shouted. She could hear that a good number of the words were obscene and all of them were angry. And she could hear that they were coming from Colin Church himself.
“Y- uh huh… ye- uh huh. Yessir. Ye-uh huh. Yes sir. Right away.” The guard hung up. He looked pretty pale. “Um. Elevator eight for all of you. Um… I’m… sorry for the mixup, Mister and Mrs. Murrillo. It won’t happen again.”
“You don’t need to apologize to me,” Al said. “Apologize to my daughter.”
He blinked, and looked at Mierra. “I’m sorry, Miss Murrillo—“
“McCall. My last name’s McCall,” Mierra said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Yes ma’am. Thank you. Uh—“
“Elevator eight. Thanks.”
The group circled around the lobby desk, walking over to the elevators. They were bronze colored, done in an art deco relief. Elevator eight was opening as they arrived, and they all stepped in. The button for 32 was already lit.
Mierra closed her eyes as the doors closed and the elevator began to rise.
“Are you all right?” Delia asked. She sounded legitimately concerned.
“Not even close,” Mierra said.
“Thank you,” Nora murmured to Hardesty. “Would you really have called in a civil rights—“
“Our department doesn’t actually cover that sort of thing,” Hardesty said, clearly no happier than Mierra herself. “But small men see a federal badge and that shuts them up. That gave me a chance to make a call.”
“Your daughter mentioned that,” Al asked. “I don’t—“ He paused. “Lynette Hardesty. Justice Wing.”
“Just an associate,” she said, smiling briefly. “And for the record, if Church hadn’t picked up, the Hell I’d have raised would make lawyers and federal agents look like an ice cream social. And none of that’s particularly helpful, I know. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Mierra said. “It’s what it is.” She felt miserable.
“I… I don’t understand,” Delia said, looking between Mierra and her mother.
Mierra looked at Delia, cocking her head. She could see things other people couldn’t. In this case… “You really don’t,” she said. “You’re not sheltered, or raised to think this kind of thing didn’t happen ‘any more.’ You literally don’t understand what just happened down there, do you?”
Delia blinked twice. “Should I?”
“Sadly? Yeah. You really should, especially since sooner or later it’ll happen to you. I’m Mierra.”
“Delia. It’s really nice to meet you.”
Mierra looked at the copper-haired girl. “You too,” she said. “This is going to be one interesting summer camp.”
“—oh boy,” Mierra muttered.
“What?” Delia asked.
“Looks like the idiot twins downstairs brought down the thunder.”
The doors opened. As Mierra, Delia, Hardesty, and the Murrillos stepped out along with their luggage, they could hear screaming down the hall. “—me that bullshit, Esposito! I don’t pay you to handwave idiots destroying my good name on the ground floor of my own damn building!”
“Mister Church,” a woman in a security guard uniform — one with a few extra frills — responded, following alongside. “We don’t have any kind of screening on the mall levels and minimal screening for the main elevator lobby. The upper levels are a higher security—“
“Higher security? Are you telling me you consider a fifteen year old girl a security risk? You and I both goddamn know why they—“
“There’s a systemic culture, Mister Church! It’s not unique to my department. It’s not unique to Empire City. I’m sorry it exists but it does! If you look at—“
“Yeah, well. Not any more there isn’t. Get rid of them.”
“You want me to fire two long time employees because of—“
“You didn’t hear me!” Church whirled, glaring at Esposito. “I didn’t say fire that trash. You told me there was a ‘systemic culture’ in my security department? I told you to get rid of them! Burn the whole damn place out with fire if you have to! You don’t want to fire them? Find them something else to do with their days but they don’t work security any more. If that’s a problem, write it up in your own resignation letter because we’re done. And we’re having this argument in front of the very people we just antagonized!”
Church paused. Esposito did, too.
“We’re having this argument in front of the very people we just antagonized,” Church repeated, in a normal tone of voice.
“Yes we are, Mister Church,” Esposito said, flushed.
Church turned, looking at the Murrillos, then Hardesty, then Delia and Mierra. His face morphed into a very professional smile. “Hi there!” he said, cheerfully. “Welcome to Churchyard Court. How was traffic? It’s bad this time of day so I hope it wasn’t too awful. Lynette — you look amazing as always. Delia Temple, right?, you look… shockingly tall. Hey Mierra. It’s nice to meet you. I hear good things from people who tell me good things.”
“Hi, Colin,” Hardesty said. “I just broke that ice jam with my badge and your private number. I’m thinking there’s probably several dozen incidents I wasn’t around for. So glad to be leaving Delia here for the summer.”
“Yeah, well, we’re better about that on this floor.”
“That’s the worst possible answer.”
“I was pretty aware of that the second it left my mouth.”
“Mierra McCall?” Esposito said, stepping forward. “I’m Ellen Esposito, head of security for Churchyard Court, which means I’m directly responsible for the terrible reception you and your foster parents received when you arrived. The fact that I’m apologizing now doesn’t make up for it. All I can do is promise you it won’t happen again.”
“Yeah. I’m sure,” Mierra said. “It’s not like it’s been a pattern or anything.”
Esposito blinked. “Have you been here before?”
“If she hasn’t, someone has,” Nora said. She was clearly still furious. “You know — Al and I? We have had a lot of foster kids, and with every one of them we try our best to teach respect and good manners, and most of all faith. Faith in the system. In peoples’ essential decency. When something like this happens? That makes me a liar, Officer. I don’t like being made a liar.”
“If you’ve managed to instill faith and good manners in your kids, remind me to hire you to look after my son,” Church said. “Look. This has been the worst possible first impression. I get that. Please. Please give us a chance to make the second impression better.”
Al looked at Church, then nodded curtly. “Okay.”
Church turned to Mierra. “That sound good to you, Ms. McCall?” He smiled a bit more. Turning up the charm.
Mierra closed her eyes. Officially she was just meeting Colin Church for the first time. Unofficially they had history. She knew what role to play.
That didn’t mean she was going to play it. She opened her eyes. “Are you firing the black guards too?”
Church paused. “Excuse me?”
“You just told Officer Esposito here to burn her department to the ground. Does that include the black guards? Or the Hispanics? Or the Asians? Or the women? If every guard on your payroll other than her’s a white dude, you have a way worse problem than you thought. So do they all get fired, too?”
Church turned slightly red. “I… no, that’s not what I meant.”
“That’s the problem with just shouting out a solution from this floor and expecting it to work in the lobby. That’s why you have this problem in the first place. You can’t just mandate it. Officer Esposito was right. It’s systemic. Who’re you going to hire to replace those guards? If they have any experience, then they’re already in it. And there’s reasons for it. Empire City’s the biggest city in the universe, and its poorest citizens are largely minorities. Police, security, whatever you call it? They see a black girl in a lobby on Vanderbilt, that raises a flag. It’s not fair, but it’s true. And if you fire all of them, they’ll tell all their friends in the business, and that’s a lot more black girls getting hassled because ‘look what her kind did’ to their buddies. You fix systemic problems systemically, or they don’t get fixed. And making a loud show of firing your whole staff in front of the people who got shafted and pretending you didn’t know we were here? Not helpful to anyone. Your security’s racist, Mister Church. Fix it or don’t, but please don’t try to make me feel better with a song and dance.”
Church stared at Mierra for a long moment. Mierra didn’t look away.
Church smiled, just a little bit. He turned to Nora. “Seriously. I will pay you seven figures if you can make Conner one tenth the person she is. Our benefits plan is astronomical.” He turned to Esposito. “So what can we do?”
“Well, I’m gonna tear into those two idiots any way you look at it,” she said. “The moment they saw that letter they should have passed her. If they had a reasonable doubt they should have called. But as for the rest.” She shrugged. “I don’t know. But we’ll figure something out because getting taken to school by a fifteen year old isn’t a lot of fun.” She nodded to the visitors, then looked at Mierra. “Keep me honest,” she said, and walked off.
“I don’t think that’ll be a problem for her,” Church said.
“Yeah,” Nora muttered. “Her embarrassment’s the problem here.”
“It’s a better start than you’d think. Self interest’s a good motivator,” Hardesty murmured back.
“I don’t understand,” Delia said. “When you showed them your identification… why wouldn’t those guards learn not to do that again?”
“Because when I badge someone, it cuts them down to size,” Hardesty said. “It’s humiliating. They get angry, and they take that anger out on people who can’t fight back. I should have just called Colin. Instead, it’ll be someone else who’ll get the brunt of that anger. It’s… complicated, Elly.”
“Oh.” Delia looked at Mierra. “Is that why you were unhappy after they let us in the elevator?”
Mierra looked at Delia. She scoffed. “No.”
“…did I… I don’t mean to offend you. I… there’s a lot I don’t know.”
“I’m gathering.” Mierra took a deep breath. “I had an invitation to come here. I had a letter backing that up. But I only got to come up this elevator because a white person with a badge overruled those guys. Your mom said those two guards were humiliated? They have no idea what humiliation feels like. You literally never encountered any of this? Or saw it on TV? How old are you?”
“Ninety seven days.”
Al and Nora looked surprised, then looked at Hardesty.
“Yeah, it was an interesting pregnancy,” Hardesty said, with a slightly wry smile.
Mierra snorted. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Any friends my age before now?”
Delia shook her head.
“Well. Now you have one.” She offered a hand.
Delia blinked, looked delighted, and shook Mierra’s hand enthusiastically. “Thank you!”
“No problem,” Mierra said, smiling a bit. “Glad some good came out of this.” She noticed there was another prickle of static electricity when they shook hands again, but that didn’t surprise her one bit. “So, Mister Church. Care to give us the tour?”
The room was set up, more or less, like a lounge. And the first person Mierra noticed was, in fact, lounging. He was sprawled back on a red couch, staring at the ceiling. Mierra noticed silver glinting from his ear. In fact, the whole auricle of his ear — the inner folds of the ear surrounded by the earlobe — was solid, smooth silver. And unlike most people she’d met, he belonged here. Mierra had a number of powers, including ‘kin recognition.’ She could tell strangers from neighbors, intruders from residents. This guy was home.
But then, the fact that he looked uncannily like Colin Church would have told her that, too.
“Jesus,” Church snapped. “Sit up, Conner. Why the—“
Conner Church scoffed, not choosing to move.
Mierra stepped into the room, Delia by her side. The Murrillos and Hardesty were all down the hall. Church had led the two incoming ‘campers’ down here, to meet ‘the rest of the gang.’ And it was a gang. In addition to Conner Church, there was a somewhat swarthy looking boy — thin, maybe fourteen, with unruly hair and a slightly jumpy disposition. He had his back to the wall, she noticed. Not from Empire City — not from any city, as near as Kin Recognition could tell. Not far from him there was another girl about Mierra’s age — her features looked Asian or Polynesian and her eyes were light blue. She didn’t even feel human to kin recognition. On the other side of the room was an almost offensively handsome boy — fifteenish, built like a bodybuilder who studied martial arts, blonde, green eyed, light skinned but with a good tan and an easygoing demeanor. Not far from him was a red haired girl, though the red looked unnaturally bright. Her skin tone was almost faun. She wore what looked like a boy’s Japanese school uniform in grey, though her features were European, and she had a large octagonal ruby pinned to her lapel.
Church rolled his eyes at Conner, then looked around. “Hi everyone! Good to see you again. Here’s a couple more campers for you. This is Mierra and this is Delia. And… I’m going to let you guys get acquainted while I tell the guy running this thing that you’re all here. Conner, for the love of God sit up.”
Conner didn’t move.
“…right. Well then.” Church left.
“Uh… hey,” Mierra said.
“Hi!” Delia said, brightly.
Conner lifted a single finger.
“Wha—“ Mierra asked.
“Sh,” he said. “Hang on… hang on… and clear.” He slid around, sitting up. Mierra noticed his other ear was sealed by silver as well. “Sorry about that. Hi. I’m Conner Church. Nice to meet both of you.” He looked Mierra up and down. “You’re McCall, huh? You scare him. That’s cool.”
“Scare… Colin Church?”
“Why didn’t you sit up when he asked?” Delia asked.
“It’s a long story. Have a seat, guys.” Conner smiled, a bit. “I promise I’m not always a jerk.”
“He was sending Mister Church a message,” the unnatural redhead said. “Calculated disdain with an undercurrent of anger designed to provoke a reaction preferably of both guilt and annoyance.”
Conner paused. “Yeah, that’s going to get annoying pretty fast, Cosette.”
“I’m sure.” The redhead stood. “Cosette Wight. Hi.” She smiled, offering a hand, which both Mierra and Delia shook. “You’ve met Conner. Over there’s Luis Ortega. Vort’s next to him. That’s Darrin Bates.”
“Nice t’meet both of you,” Luis said, smiling. He had a southern accent — no. Not quite South. Appalachian. Mierra’s kin recognition locked in on him. West Virginia, almost certainly. “I… uh… I don’t shake hands.”
“Why not?” Delia asked, eyebrows going up.
“Um… ‘cause I tend to overreact when I’m startled and then someone gets hurt and that’s not a great way to say hello.”
Delia blinked. “Oh. That makes sense.”
“And you’re… Vort?” Mierra asked, looking at the brunette.
She stood, fluidly — not bracing or even counterbalancing as she did so. It looked… odd. Almost Uncanny Valley odd. “No,” she said with a slight smile. If she had any dialect at all Mierra couldn’t pick it out. “My name is Vortex. The others seem to call me Vort, however, so if you wish to do the same that is acceptable to me.”
“Your… name is Vortex?” Mierra blinked twice. “Wow. I thought ‘Mierra’ got me stared at. It’s nice to meet you.”
“It’s a nice room full of nice people,” Darren said, sliding to his own feet and walking over. “Hey there — Mierra, you said? That’s such a cool name.” He shook her hand smoothly, then turned to Delia. “And you’re ‘Delia?’ It is an honor and a pleasure to meet you, Miss… what was your last name?”
“Temple,” Delia said, grinning and offering her hand. “Delia Temple. Hi! It’s really nice to meet you!”
“It is exceptionally nice to meet you, Miss Delia Temple.” Darren took Delia’s hand, turning it and leaning to kiss it, which caused Delia to blink and flush.
“Back off, Bates,” Conner said, with a hint of annoyance. “She’s less than four months old. She doesn’t have antibodies for your smarm yet.”
“Smarm?” Delia asked, blinking again.
“Four months old?” Vortex asked. Her eyes had widened slightly, staring at Delia.
“Ninety-seven days,” Delia said. “Is that… surprising?”
“Yes,” Vortex said. “I am one hundred and ninety five thousand, two hundred and sixty four minutes old. I’ve never met anyone younger than I am but at a comparable stage of physical and cognitive development.”
Delia looked startled, then grinned. “Then you’re only fifty four thousand, four hundred and thirty two minutes older than I am! It’s wonderful to meet you! How did your cultural development progress?”
Vortex looked equally delighted, the two walking closer to each other. “It’s actually not known how I gained my understanding of linguistic and cultural norms, though there has been significant research conducted on the subject. And you?”
“My parents’ psyches were blended briefly during a period of transition for my mother, which had the twin effect of reshaping and remaking what had been her biological matter while creating a template for my—“
“Okay!” Mierra said, a bit more loudly. “Am I to understand that no one here actually came to learn computer programming?”
Conner grinned. “Yup. We’re all extra weird. Take me. I have a super-tech-brain and neurology that supports it in funky ways.”
“Is that where the silver ear-plates come from?”
“Those? Not originally. I was born completely deaf. But… dear old Dad wasn’t about to have a deaf son, so he and his team used some of the same tech that he ultimately turned into the Cavalier hardsuits and implanted cybernetic substitutes, wiring them directly into the auditory center of my brain.”
Mierra frowned. “You sound pissed about that. You don’t want to hear?”
“I don’t know what my life would have been like if I’d been raised the way I was born, but that’s… whatever. What pisses me off is they built these, they work, and then they didn’t turn around and mass produce them. Why doesn’t every deaf person have the option of trying this if they want it? Well, other than the fact that Dad makes his living off of blowing people up, not fixing them. Anyway. I’ve made some modifications over the years, and added a few other things here and there. Now, if you want cool? Rip over there’s a living mnemonic record and mimic. If he sees something done, he can do it.”
“It’s not quite that simple,” Luis said. “But… kinda.”
“Rip?” Delia asked.
“…my Dad calls me Rip,” Luis said. “And, since Conner hears everything he overheard it and the next thing you know—“
“It’s part of my charm,” Conner said, grinning. “Besides, ‘Rip?’ Is an awesome nickname. You know what they called me in boarding school? ‘Conman.’ Not my favorite.”
“This is amazing,” Delia said. “I’m an electrokinetic!”
“Really?” Vortex asked. “I’m a spatiomorphic—“
”Guys!” Mierra snapped. Luis threw himself out of the chair at the sudden shout, flipping it up into a barrier as he crouched behind it, angling to spring… before forcing himself to relax.
“Yes, Mierra?” Cosette asked, smiling slightly.
Mierra looked around herself. “None of you know me,” she said. “The first rule of superpowers is you don’t tell people about your superpowers until you know you can trust them.” She shook her head. “How — how do you not know that?”
“We do know that,” Cosette said. “You’ll notice you don’t know what, if anything, I can do. Well, Vort and Ms. Temple don’t know it, but that’s because they’re literally less than a year old. Conner’s the one who told you what Luis can do, which is actually really crappy of him. And Conner told you what he can do because he’s never, ever known anyone with parahuman abilities other than his father’s friends, and his relationship with his father is fraught enough that it makes it really hard for him to see them through any other lens. So he wants to fit in with other parahumans because he’s never fit in anywhere.” She smiled a bit more. “And he really, really wants to impress you.”
“Impress me.” Mierra turned to look at Conner. “Because you overheard your father talking about me to some of those friends, which means you know the thing I’m not even happy that your father knows. And you were… what, about to tell all of them?”
Conner flushed. “I… no. No, it’s not…”
“Why?” Darrin asked. “What can you do?”
“I can cause calcium to explode like C4, so I blow peoples’ skeletons up. Makes a real mess.” Mierra turned to look at Darrin. “Want to hit on me, too?”
Darrin blinked. “You can what?” He paused. “You’re… you can’t do that.”
“Of course I can’t do that. You don’t know what I can do. If anything. And that’s how it should be. For my safety, for your safety, for my loved ones’ safety… look, if you want to live an open parahuman life, power to you. But right now, none of us is even eighteen years old. Two of you aren’t even one. The time to decide whether to go public? Isn’t yet. She looked around. “You… this camp. You’re them. The Justice Wing Institute in Grantham — the one to train parahumans. That’s you guys. You’re the first students.”
“Half of them, anyway,” Cosette said. “From what I’m given to understand.” She wrinkled her brow. “You’re… not going to the Institute?”
“Probably not. Maybe. The jury’s out.” Mierra looked around. “Wow. Okay. You guys have a lot to learn. I hope they’re good at this.”
Luis jumped again, spinning around that chair. Vortex imploded into purplish light, appearing on the other side of the room. Delia had jumped backwards, as had Darrin, and there was a heavy ozone smell in the air. Cosette had dived behind the side of the couch she’d been sitting on. And Mierra had rolled back against the far wall and forced herself not to change.
Sitting in the back corner of the room was a girl. Her skin was pale with a cool undertone. Her bob-cut hair was so blond it was almost white. She was maybe sixteen, short, and yet still looked almost gangly. And she was smiling.
“Who the Hell are you?” Conner asked. He’d fallen back onto the couch.
“Trudy,” she said, still smiling.
She shrugged. “Just Trudy.” She looked around. “What? She can be ‘just Vortex’ but ‘just Trudy’ is where it gets weird?”
Vortex was frowning. “You weren’t there. Then you were. I have complete spatial awareness — I should have felt some form of transition, be it movement or instantiation, but…”
Trudy shrugged. “Complete’s almost never as complete as you think.”
“Where… did you come from?” Cosette asked.
Trudy blinked. “Do… did they not ever tell you guys? Wow. Okay. See. When a member of a sexually dimorphic species capable of generating spermatozoa and a complementary member of that species capable of generating ova love each other very much or are both very drunk—“
“Sh!” Conner said, holding his hand up. “People coming.”
“So?” Delia asked.
“Sh sh sh. Hang on.” Conner frowned slightly, then began speaking in a slightly higher register. “—don’t understand why McCall is in there with them instead of out here with us.” His voice dropped in register. “Ms. McCall’s a special case. Don’t worry about it. It’s really good she’s a part of this. I just wish she were coming to Grantham with us.” His voice went back up, but to a different pitch. “Why isn’t she coming with us? I don’t really know anything about her.” His voice dropped back down. “And that’s how it should be. Ms. McCall falls under professional courtesy. And we’re here.” His voice shifted back to the second higher pitch. “Oh good. By the way, someone in there’s repeating everything we s- oh shit.” That last was in Conner’s own pitch.
The door opened, and a handsome man with an almost warm, mahogany colored skin and dark brown, tightly curly hair walked into the room, looking around. “Now now, Mister Church. We don’t encourage that kind of language.” He smiled — it was a warm, friendly smile. “I’m told that Ms. McCall told you the first rule of being superhuman. Ms. Temple — what was that first rule?”
Delia blinked. “Um… don’t tell anyone about your superpowers until you trust them?”
“Exactly right.” He grinned a bit more. “Here’s the second rule. Never, ever assume that you’re the only one who has your power. And as a corollary, never assume you’re the best at that power. Mister Church — good job on keeping your hearing secret from your Dad. For the record, that secret’s safe. But while you can hear people halfway across the building? One of the people with me can hear people across the state if she wants.”
“Good to know,” Conner said. “And… I’m sorry. You are?”
He smiled even more warmly. “Grant,” he said. “Grant Graham. I’m your camp counselor, teacher, cheerleader, mentor — whatever you want to call me, I guess.” He paused, looking at Trudy. “Wait, really?”
“What?” Trudy asked.
Grant gave her a look.
“Whatever.” Grant chuckled, despite himself. “Okay. So let’s put it out there. Conner, Cosette, Darrin, Delia, Luis, Vortex… and… Trudy, I guess? Like Mierra said, you’re half the charter class of the Justice Wing Institute for Parahuman Studies, which has its big launch in September in beautiful Grantham, Massachusetts.”
“Half,” Vortex said. “You and Cosette both said that. Who are the other half?”
“Who indeed.” Grant smiled, turning halfway around. He peeled his sweater off, revealing a textured blue bodysuit underneath — clearly armored, with various panels and gadgets on it. He slid his pants off as he hopped up, turning as he did so, hand over his face until he moved it away, a mask now over his eyes—
Conner blinked. “…oh my God, you’re Cudgel.”
The young hero laughed. “Not quite. I was Cudgel. I gave the name up. Graduated, I guess. There’s a new one. He’s amazing and he’ll get even better.” He pulled on gloves. “I’m Truncheon. And if rule one is ‘never tell anyone about your powers unless you trust them’ and rule two is ‘always assume someone else has the same power?’ Rules three through a hundred are all ‘never tell anyone your secret identity.’ And my identity is a big deal. So by telling all of you… Ms. Wight — what’s my message, here?”
“You’re saying you trust us,” Cosette said, softly. “You’re saying you can trust us. But… how do you know that—“
“I have my ways of knowing. Quite a lot of them, actually. They span the parahuman spectrum. But the very last one — the last test? Was Mierra.”
“Me?” Mierra frowned. “You know.”
“Yup. I know. Conner knows because he eavesdropped. Church knows, which you already know. He had to tell me because I have to be responsible for you this summer, at least in part. And now you know my secret too, so I hope we’re square ‘cause that’s that. But what happens next? That’s up to you. But. I will say this.” He looked around the room. “Maybe some of you will screw up, the way Conner did when he outed Luis. Maybe some of you won’t measure up. But if any of you were here to screw with the rest of the class? Mierra would have acted differently than she did. And I trust her judgement as much as I trust my own.”
“Why?” Mierra asked. “We’ve never even met.”
“I was on Flight 833.”
Mierra blinked. Flight 833 had nearly been brought down by Maxwell Weber’s magnetic fields. She’d stopped him just in time. “You—“
“I’m alive today because of you. Your judgement. Your will. Yeah. By the way? Seriously, thank you. I like being alive. I’m hoping to do it for a while, yet.” He looked around. “Even when Trudy decided to say ‘hi,’ Mierra was chill. That, plus everything else I know? Tells me I can trust all of you. Whether or not Mierra agrees with that is her choice, of course. Either way… you asked about the other half of the Institute’s charter class.” Truncheon looked out the door. “That’s a cue, guys!”
A musical beat began to play — broadcast in the room. Heavy on the base, uptempo.
Truncheon arched an eyebrow. “Seriously?”
A woman stepped through the door — she was blond, wearing goggles and a brown and black layered costume with a hood, a knobbed stick in her hand. “It’s not my fault you don’t know how to make an entrance, Trench,” she said, grinning. She was followed by an Asian woman in yellow and black, with bands of short crossbow bolts wrapped around her arms and legs, a crosshairs over her heart, and launchers on her wrists. A beautiful woman with long black hair in a red leather uniform followed — low cut, revealing a battered golden metal symbol embedded in her chest. Behind her, a green boy and blue girl, both scaled with manes of grey and blue hair followed. A girl in purple and orange with a mask, light skin and purple hair to match followed them, and behind them all, drifting in the air was a girl… a girl in a blue minidress with black tights on underneath, a yellow demicape, and the thirteen point star that was perhaps the most famous symbol on the planet on her chest.
Mierra’s jaw had long since dropped. She wasn’t alone.
“You probably know everyone by reputation,” Truncheon said, as soon as the music crescendoed and ended. “but let’s make it official. That’s my cohort from Greystone City and protege of my old pal Nightstick — Shillelagh. She has terrible taste in music. Next to her’s the partner of—“
“Right. Sorry, X. That’s Crosspointe, the ex-partner of Broadhead. Amulet, the partner and protege of Freya. Selkie and Kelpie, the sidekicks of the Ancient Mariner. Splitsecond, the Beacon’s buddy. And finally… I… what do I even say.”
“Hi,” the brown haired floating girl said. “I’m Paragirl — Paragon’s sister. It’s really nice to meet all of you.”
“…okay,” Darrin said. “This is not where I saw today going.”
“Collectively, the people up front here, along with me, have been known as ‘Junior Justice Wingers’ for a very long time,” Truncheon said. “Each one of us was a sidekick, partner, or whatever we call it of a Justice Wing member. We all had a lot of chances to learn from the best. But for all of that? It’s not the way this should work. We have to learn more. We have to teach people better. So… the folks up here with me? They’re the other half of the Institute’s charter class.”
“Of course,” Cosette said, eyes wide in wonder. “Instant legitimacy. You’re telling the world that this isn’t just a place for unknown parahumans — it’s where the next generation of heroes, even popular ones… it’s where they go to learn. Even Paragirl.”
“Especially Paragirl,” Paragirl said. “Look. I’ve had a lot of chances to do good, but there’s so much I don’t know. I’m actually a lot newer to these powers than you might realize — I didn’t grow up with them the way my brother did. And with all the power I have… a mistake could really hurt or even kill someone. I’m not here to send a message. I’m here because I need this Institute.”
“Just like we need it,” Delia said. “Because we’re all just starting out.”
“Except Mierra,” Luis said, scratching his chin. “You’re not talking about her the way you talk about us. But you’re also not… she’s not one of us, but she also isn’t a Junior Justice Winger, even though she’s my age.” He blinked. “She’s an independent hero. Moreso than… than anyone but you, and you were the first sidekick!”
Truncheon arched an eyebrow. “That’s not for me to confirm or deny, Luis.” He was smiling, however.
Mierra scoffed. “Right. You just made it abundantly clear to anyone paying attention. Can’t say I love that.”
“I know,” Truncheon said. “And I hope you forgive me. Mierra… the circumstances that brought you to Churchyard Court aren’t the same ones that brought any of them here. But… they need to know you, if nothing else, because they’re your alibi. You don’t need to say anything else. You don’t even need to stay if you don’t want. But if your foster parents show up, these are the people who’re gonna swear you’re with them coding every day.”
“Gosh, look at that,” Cosette said. “A practical lesson — how to cover for heroes even if you don’t know what heroes you’re covering for.”
“So… what is this camp going to be?” Darrin asked. “Because the details were sketchy. And… is Amulet going to be a part of it? Because I think I’m in love.”
“Rethink that,” Amulet said. She had a Greek accent.
“We’re not going to be at this camp, this summer,” Shillelagh said. “For better or worse, all of us have experience in the field, while none of you do. If you’re Freshmen? We’re Juniors and Seniors. And obviously, you can’t get the experience we’ve built up in a few months. But… you can learn the basics. Start to learn teamwork. Learn how to think outside the box. And apply your parahuman abilities to more than you might expect. Even if you’re not planning on going into the hero business.”
“Exactly,” Truncheon said. “The Institute’s going to be where you learn what you need to know. This camp? Is orientation. My job’s to get you all ready to learn.”
“And what’s our job?” Conner asked.
“To prove that you can learn,” Truncheon said. “And, while you’re at it? To make a few actual friends. Friends who are like you. Friends who can like you for who you are.”
“I made a friend!” Delia shouted, hopping a bit. “My first one my own age! Physical age! You know what I mean!”
There was a pause, followed by a snicker. “That’s… awesome,” Darrin said.
Mierra frowned slightly. “Yes, it is awesome, Mister Bates. I’m the friend she made. Do you know it happened? I had something humiliating happen to me. Her mother helped me. But through it all, Delia was worried about me. She didn’t understand what was going on, but she showed me nothing but compassion. This could have been a terrible day. Instead, I’m going to remember it as one of my best, and it’s thanks to her. If that’s funny to you? Then you need friends way more than she does.”
Darrin flushed, looking down. “Sorry,” he said.
“Yeah, well, you’re about to take off and leave her,” Conner said. “Some friend.”
“Hey,” Delia said. “Don’t say that. Friendship isn’t conditional. And she has things she needs to do. I’m just… I’m really grateful I got to meet her, even if I don’t see her again for a while.”
Mierra looked at Delia. “Yeah,” she said. She glanced at Truncheon. At the people surrounding him.
“What you do next is up to you,” Truncheon said, smiling just a touch.
“I know.” Mierra looked around the room. She took a deep breath, and closed her eyes.
In human form, her kin recognition was only so powerful and only so precise, but it was there and it was part of her. It let her sense predator and prey — her so called predator ping. It let her recognize neighbors and foreigners. It wasn’t all knowing. Sometimes it could be bloody vague. But she’d practiced with it. Practiced it in different situations.
She could feel the Junior Justice Wingers — none of them from Empire City, and she could feel from some — Crosspointe and Splitsecond in particular — the ping of predation… but no one here was prey. She was sure of it. And all of them were tight. Kin. Family.
The others… Conner a neighbor. The others were different flavors of foreign. Trudy was… just weird. But none of them were predators. None of them felt like a threat. And Delia…
Delia felt like kin. Already. Just like that. Delia trusted Mierra implicitly.
That was insane. That kind of thing would get the copper-headed girl killed. Unless…
Unless Mierra helped her out.
“This is a mistake,” she muttered. She slipped her backpack off.
“Mierra?” Delia asked.
“Seriously,” Truncheon said. “I didn’t mean — you don’t have to do this.”
“Yeah, well. We’re teaching lessons today, right. And you’re camp director and camp counselor? That’s not how it works. You need help. And there’s a ton I need to learn, but there’s even more they need to learn, right?” She unzipped her bag, then set it on the floor and began peeling off her shirt. She had on a black and brown leotard underneath, with three marks on the front. Colin Church had sent it to her a few days after their initial encounter — a peace offering. A real suit, one that could stretch with her changes. Of course it was a leotard, because Colin Church was a pig, but what could you do?
“Mierra?” Delia asked, eyes growing wider.
Cosette smiled a bit more. “Wow,” she murmured.
“We’re teaching lessons. So here’s one. You’re all here, right? You all chose to be here. Even you, Conner. Be sure, because if you don’t choose to be here, you need to go, right now. Because… Truncheon said his identity was a big one, and he’s right. Mine? I have enemies. A lot of them. I’m usually the only one around to fight them. Way more than I’d like to think about want to kill me. More that one wouldn’t think twice about killing everyone I love just to hurt me. Heck, it got out that I liked a certain food truck and Flambeaux literally blew it up, just for that reason. You knowing this could kill you. You letting this slip, Conner? Could kill everyone I love. Is this a real enough lesson for you all?” She folded her jeans, setting them on a couch, leaving her in bare legs and feet, in that leotard. “Any questions?”
The new kids all looked pretty young, all of a sudden. Even Trudy looked somber, and Mierra had no take on her.
“All right then.” She snorted, looking at Truncheon. “Never did this in front of anyone before. Feels weird.” She leaned down, sliding her hands into her bag and coming up with her two quillthrower gauntlets on her wrists. She arched, then, her legs and arms beginning to grow, her body swelling, her face elongating… hair and fur beginning to sprout and grow, the hidden buttonhole in back opening, letting her tail extend out and stretch behind her as she grew to her full, furred height.
“…oh my God,” Luis whispered. “She’s Rodent.”
Delia stared, wide eyed. She then blinked. “Who?”
Rodent laughed. “Story of my life,” she said, her voice considerably different. “Congratulations. The people in this room, plus Colin Church? Are the only ones to know who I really am. Please don’t get my foster family killed. If that sounds silly? Get over it.”
“So… why aren’t you going to be at the Institute?” Vortex asked.
“She won’t be at the Institute because she’s got more years on the ground than anyone but me,” Truncheon said. “Mostly all on her own. She’s been a hero on days when no one was there to be a hero. And she started when she was… what. Eleven?”
“Who counts?” Rodent said, looking around. She let her heightened kin recognition and predator ping fill the room. See if she’d change her mind—
Rodent blinked. She turned and looked at Truncheon. ”Really?”
“Hey, I was as surprised as you are.”
Rodent looked at him, then snickered. “Maybe. Mm-kay. So.” She looked around. Crosspointe, Shillelagh. Paragirl, Kelpie, Splitsecond — people she’d seen on the news her whole…
Rodent paused. She most of them were looking at her.
No. Staring at her.
“What?” she asked.
“Nothing!” Shillelagh said, jumping back. “Nothing at… um…”
Crosspointe looked at Shillelagh, then rolled her eyes. “She’s freaking out,” she said. “You’re kinda her hero. And… kinda mine, too. I… may… have… done the crossbow bolt thing because you… hey, is there food or something?”
Rodent blinked. “Uh….”
“There is,” Truncheon said. “There’s a cafeteria up one floor, and it’s laid out for a reception. Let’s head up there. Oh — Rodent? Join us up when you can. I know they want you on 45 for a few minutes. Paperwork, and…”
“Excelsior business.” Truncheon grinned.
“What’s an… ‘excelsior?’” Vortex asked.
Rodent looked at Vortex. She slowly smiled. “Me, for one. I’m an Excelsior. I’ll see y’all in a few.”
Yeah. This was going to be a great summer.