“Okay, why the Hell haven’t I heard of you before now?” he asked, finally.
Leather laughed. It sounded bitter. “They couldn’t even get my name right in the paper. Why would you hear about me? But I apparently made Page View Review because I don’t have tits.” —Anchor and Leather
The alternate universe coded ⎇001JW is home to parahuman heroes and villains, but their greatest heroes, the legendary Justice Wing, are facing a crisis of public confidence. This is Justice Wing In Nadir.
Against the backdrop of these rising tensions, in February, the first tier archvillain Anchor has recruited the inexperienced but enthusiastic villain Leather for his mercenary organization: Anchor’s Marines. By April, Leather is established as a greenhorn — entitled to a half-share of the group’s profits — and been given an advanced training regimen in the skills a parahuman thief needs: lockpicking, rewiring security systems, and so on. Her primary teacher is a villain named Multiplette who makes her disdain for Leather clear. Anchor’s Marine’s is contracted to hit a major financial reserve as a cover for their real goal: emptying out a specific safe deposit box and not getting caught doing it. The Archvillain Beguile, one of the contracting parties, seeks Leather out when it becomes clear Leather’s the only one who doesn’t like the plan as it’s been listed.
Anchor had been sitting in the chamber for about an hour and a half by the time Leather was brought in. It wasn’t a surprise — Anchor’s lawyers were top notch and billed accordingly — Anchor was first tier — one of the top villains on Earth. High end legal teams came with the territory.
The new girl? Had to wait on a public defender.
Anchor watched her be led in. She was still in the negation restraints, but her leather racing suit had been replaced by prison orange. She was looking around, more curious than angry or scared. Anchor could respect that.
“Are you kidding me?” Leather asked. “Co-ed prison blocks? I don’t know if this is empowering or horrifying!”
The female officer leading her in had no comment. The chambers weren’t quite as exposed as they looked from the front. They were made from a special polarizing artificial crystal. Most of the crystal lattice was orange and at most translucent. Only the front got close to clear, and that was just so the monitors could keep an eye on the parahuman criminals.
Anchor was sitting in Chamber 2 — Tenterhook was in Chamber 1. He didn’t know Tenterhook at all when he arrived and that hadn’t changed — she hadn’t even looked up when Anchor and Malie were brought in. Anchor figured anyone who couldn’t be bothered to gawk at the giant shark-woman or one of the most wanted villains on the planet probably wasn’t up for chatting. Malie herself was in Chamber 4. As predicted, Leather was being led to Chamber 3.
And, as promised, Anchor was watching Leather be led in while sitting on the floor, his legs propped up, leaning back against the orange lattice between Chambers 2 and 3.
The clear lattice at the front of Chamber 3 rippled and retracted. “Go inside,” the officer said. “The negation restraints will disengage. Put them in the box on the floor, and then step all the way to the back wall and wait.”
“And if I don’t? You think this can hold me? Do you?!”
“If you’d rather leave the restraints on, you can.” The guard sounded bored.
Leather glared, as though daring her to argue, then snorted and walked into the chamber. She looked remarkably like the sergeant getting Anchor’s water — all ‘fine, I wanted to anyway.’ Despite himself, Anchor smiled a little.
He couldn’t really see at this point — just a shadow through the orange haze, but it looked like Leather was taking off the restraints and putting them in the box, then stepping back.
The box was drawn back into the hall, and the lattice reknit itself, sealing Leather into the chamber. The guard checked the restraints, then nodded. “There are four icons on the far wall,” the guard said, with the bored intonations of a well-practiced speech. “ One looks like a toilet, one a water fountain, one a bed, and one a wash-basin. They illuminate softly after lights out, so you don’t mistake one for another. Security monitors watch you at all times from the opposite side of the hall, with a secondary monitor in your ceiling. Twice a day you will disrobe and proceed to the area of the chamber illuminated by the red lines. A stall will slide down, lock in place, and you will be bathed automatically in a soak, soap, rinse, condition, and rinse pattern, followed by blow dry. During this time there will be a place to put your uniform. It will be removed and a fresh one will replace it during this time. Visitations, be they personal or from your legal counsel, will involve having the restraints moved in. When they are all locked in place and show active, we will then and only then open the chamber. Meals will be slid in, positioned so you can sit on the edge of the bed to eat. The food will not require utensils and utensils will not be provided. Do you have any questions?”
“I’ve been learning competitive macramé? Where can I get the yarn and needles?”
“This is temporary holding. Your hobbies will not be provided for. After your arraignment we will make appropriate accommodations. If you’re bored, we’ll provide reading materials.” The guard paused. “And macramé doesn’t use needles.”
“Great. The cop’s a hippie.” She snorted again. “So. How do I know that the guards watching me through the security monitors aren’t recording me to upload later or just to get their jollies?”
“Well. That is an answer, isn’t it.”
“Something like that.” The guard picked the box of restraints up — the chamber had resealed in the meantime — and started walking out.
“Going so soon?” Leather called after the guard. “But we were just beginning to bond!”
Anchor grinned again, waiting. After a moment, he heard a few knocks behind him — his own parahuman hearing at work, given how graceful Leather seemed to be — as she leaned up on the other side of the wall. “Hello?” she asked, a bit too loud.
“Easy, man. Quiet.” Anchor chuckled, essentially subvocalizing. “Sound conducts right through the crystal at this point. Anywhere else in the room, you need to sort of yell. Not here.”
“Don’t they know that?” Leather whispered.
“‘Course they know it. They just don’t care, usually. But it’s why I knew we’d be next to each other. You an’ me? We don’t got history. Malie, on the other hand? She and I go way back. She works for me. So they don’t want me whisperin’ plans to her.”
“Gotcha. But… like… you can hear her, right? The same way I could hear you out there.”
“That’s right. Parahuman hearing. Chalk it up to being bioengineered to live in deep pressure environments. But that fact isn’t in my file and I’m not about to tip them off about it. If they don’t know about your ears, don’t tell them. Don’t tell them anything about your powers except what they already know. If at all possible, throw in disinformation.”
“To… stick it to them?”
“No. If the police or PATER team learns about you, what they learn goes into your file. That file goes to DETAILS. DETAILS shares it with Justice Wing and any number of second or third tier heroes. You get ‘tiers?’”
“I’ve heard the term. Don’t really know a lot about them, but still. It’s that big a deal?”
“It’s the biggest deal. Take your ears. If your eyes and nose are the same? Then you have a raft of advantages in a fight that don’t show up unless you make it obvious. If you can set fires with your mind but have other powers, keep the firestarting in your back pocket unless it’s needed. I realize that you like showing off, but—“
“I love showing off, but listening really hard at some guy doesn’t usually get him looking at my butt. And I have a very nice butt, thank you.”
“I’ve seen better.”
“Shhhhh… you realize I’ve known Beguile for literally decades, right?” Anchor chuckled. “Okay. The public defender got your info. Did he half-sleep through it or did he try to talk you into turning over a new leaf before it was too late?”
Leather snickered. “The second one. ‘You haven’t really hurt anyone. A few years, less if you can pay people back…’ blah blah blah.”
“Yeah. Usual song and dance. All right. If I told you right now that you were workin’ for me until further notice, and therefore got access to my lawyers and a one-way ticket out of this place, what would you say?”
Leather giggled. “I’d say ‘making deals with super-famous bad guys without reading the fine print first sounds stupid.’”
Anchor laughed. “Good answer, kid. If you’d agreed, I’d have been inclined to leave you in here.”
“So you’re breaking out?”
“Of these chambers? Nope. And I heard what you said to the guard. Do you think you can break out of this thing?”
Leather paused. “Well, if you can’t—“
“Don’t think about me. Based on what you can do, do you think you can break out of this chamber.”
Anchor smiled more broadly. “Good. I think so too. So. Here’s another piece of advice. Don’t. Never, ever break out of holding. If you need to break yourself out, wait until you’re in an actual facility — even if it’s jail while you wait for trial. Honestly, that’s usually your best bet.” He shifted a bit. “Do you know the difference between jail and prison?”
“…a syllable and only one is spelled with a ‘g’ in Britain?”
“Good guess. No. Jail’s short term. Technically we’re in jail right now, but most of the time people in our business mean ‘the hole they stick you in until you’re convicted.’ Prison’s long term. It’s where you go when the jury says you’re guilty and the judge gives you a speech. And fun fact? It’s illegal for them to stick you in prison unless you’ve been convicted of a crime. So. Right now we’re in parahuman containment waiting for our hearings. After we see the judge they’ll transfer us to an appropriate parahuman jail to wait for trial. Once we’ve gone to trial and been gaveled through, we’ll get sent to a parahuman penitentiary.”
“…so… it’s all semantics?”
“Fuck no. Most of the time prison sucks way worse than jail. Unless, you know, you’re a rich white dude with no powers. Which, for the record, we aren’t.”
“Okay… so… why not break out of holding before you get to jail?”
“Because if you break out of holding, then next time they won’t put you in holding. And holding’s not so bad in a bunch of ways. You won’t get to know the right cops if you aren’t in holding.”
“The right cops— you mean… the bad cops? The ones on the take?”
Anchor paused. “Jesus fuck. I pegged you for twenty or twenty-one, not eleven.”
“Some cops are corrupt, sure. But at your tier, they couldn’t possibly matter less to you. The cops that matter are the ones you see over and over again. The ones who process you. The ones who kinda like you after a while because you don’t piss them off without good reason, so they do you a few good turns. Nothin’ big. Bottled water instead’a tap for me, say. Or the comfortable clothes. Out in the world, the cops are your enemy. In here, they’re your infrastructure. If they seal you in a Max-Tank, you’ll never build up those kinds of relationships.” He laughed again. “It’s the same when you’re out there, workin’ the evil. Get to know your support team. Make friends. Make ‘em want to help you, not just take your orders.”
“Huh.” Leather sounded surprised. “I… never really thought about it.”
“Really? C’mon. When you were running around savin’ cats in trees or stoppin’ purse snatchers, are you telling me you didn’t get to know some of the petty crooks on your turf — the ones who weren’t so bad, so you tried to help them where you could?”
“…I… don’t… know what you’re talking about.” Leather sounded horrified.
Anchor laughed, hard. “Oh come on. You think I don’t know an ex-cowl when I meet one? You scream ‘former super hero.’ Which one, by the way? We’ll want to make sure you don’t accidentally get staffed by guys you once beat up.”
“Later. What hero?”
Leather paused for a very long moment. “Dynamo Girl,” she said, a bit more softly.
“Oh.” Anchor paused. “Never heard of you.”
“You or anyone else. I was out of Bay City.”
“Jersey? Jesus. You’re lucky, kid. At least four times in the last three years I considered using Bay City as my launching point for a major offensive, ‘cause who’d expect that? If I’d met a kid in spandex there, I’d’a probably fed her to Malie.”
Leather didn’t answer. Anchor chuckled again. “Don’t get too wound up about that, kid. That’s the gig. You’re on the other side of the aisle now. But you probably never got to really deal with the big leagues. What was your toughest fight?”
“Red Beast and Shockburn.”
Anchor blinked. “Wait… what?”
“Red Beast and Shockburn. They were looking for something in Man— in a local park. They took hostages. I stopped them.”
“If you call it that. They beat me pretty much to death. I got lucky.”
“But they went to jail?”
Anchor thought back over the last couple of years. Red Beast and Shockburn had been doing toady-work for Leo Lucas since before the Apocalypse Agenda. He didn’t know if they were currently on the inside or not — but he knew that about seven months before, Leo Lucas himself had been taken down by Paragon. Something really big. And Lucas hadn’t tried to break prison yet, which suggested things had gone really, really wrong.
“Okay, why the Hell haven’t I heard of you before now?” he asked, finally.
Leather laughed. It sounded bitter. “They couldn’t even get my name right in the paper. Why would you hear about me? But I apparently made Page View Review because I don’t have tits.”
“Jesus fuck. I hate humanity so fucking much.” Anchor shook his head. “Okay, kid. I’m gonna check that story out — and no, I won’t make mention of it to Shockburn. Guy holds grudges. He’s such a dumbass. Anyway. I’ll assume you’re telling me the truth—“
“Kid? You’re officially a professional liar now, remember? Never take anything on face value. I’ll assume you’re telling me the truth. I’ll tell my lawyer you’re a recruit and put you on my account. Do what she tells you at your hearing. We’ll talk more when we get to jail.”
“I… already said I’d need to read the fine—“
“Shut up. You’re not under obligation. Jesus. I see potential here. And for the record? I am a first tier epic supervillain threat who’s murdered, stolen, destroyed, and threatened more than you can possibly imagine. I like your bite, but respect’s everything on our side of the aisle. So show it.”
There was a pause. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m… still getting used to being in ja— holding. I mean, I was being a smartass to the cops when apparently I should be nice to them—“
“Nah. That’s just building a brand. You’re cute and pretty and naughty and fun. Giving them lip that way’s fine. Just don’t get personal when you’re doing it.”
“Right. Gotcha. So — if I’m not going to be under obligation…”
“If you check out and if I think your potential’s more than just show, I might offer you a position in Anchor’s Marines. You hear of them?”
“Villain group? You guys fight Justice Wing and the Excelsiors?”
“There’s no Excelsiors any more, but that’s not the way to look at it. Anchor’s Marines — we call that Group work. You go in under a specific contract for a share of the take. My gang’s mercenary — they’re contracted for shit, they go do it. Sometimes that means fighting Justice Wing, but that’s only sometimes the point. If I offer you a slot, you’ll have a chance to get trained for your new position, get to know how shit works, make some cash.”
“And a share of the take?”
“A half share. You’re new. You don’t know shit. So you wouldn’t be offered a full slot. You’d be a greenhorn.”
Leather paused. “…wait, people actually use that term professionally? I mean, outside of The Deadliest Catch? I thought it was something they made up on ‘Shake Hands with Danger.’”
“Shake hands wit— what the fuck?”
“Never mind. Greenhorn, huh? I think I can handle that. I don’t know how much training I’ll need, though.”
“Yeah? How good are you at rewiring security systems?”
“…I’m… really good at smashing front windows, grabbing a bunch of shit, and running away at fifty miles an hour while bouncing off buildings.”
“Penny ante shit. Doesn’t count. You’re clearly more a thief than anything else, right? So you need to be able to handle security from the inside, even when your carefully purchased information turns out to be wrong. Where you gonna learn to do that? DeVry?”
“…I… guess I never thought about it.”
“You’re thinking about it now. Group’s where you learn that shit. Make friends. Make the start of a rep. Even get a pretty good career going even if you just stick to cat burglar shit. Do really well, and some tier two may decide to take you under their wing, do the mentor shit for a while… give you real polish.”
“That’s not what you’re doing?”
“Me? Nah. I suck at mentor. Unless you breath water. If you breath water, I’m always fucking hiring. But then you’d end up a powered hench, and I don’t think that’s what you’re looking for anyway. Right. Any questions? Scared?”
“Not really. I mean, I thought I would be but… I don’t know. It’s nowhere near as bad as trying to scrounge enough change for Taco Bell so you’d live through the night.”
“Metabolism based healing?”
“Yeah — I find if I—“
“Shut the fuck up,” Anchor snapped.
“I told you before. Don’t ever tell people shit they don’t need to know. I now know that if I have to put pressure on you or torture you to death I should starve you. Don’t give me that shit for free, girl.”
“Good.” Anchor chuckled. “Okay. Start making friends right now — start with Malie. Cross your chamber, lie down on the opposite side of the cell, knock three times, and wait for Malie to growl something at you. When she does, tell her ‘ten pound test.’ That’ll tell her not to eat you. Then ask her shit. She’s got a whole different view of all this than I do. Oh, do you know much about the Brontë sisters or Victorian era books and shit?”
“…wh… I… read Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and—“
“Whatever. Malie loves that shit. Talk up Wuthering Heights or Agnes Grey if you really want to fucking impress her. She’ll like you. It’s good when the shark-girl likes you.”
Leather sputtered for a moment. “…Malie the Destroyer likes Victorian novels?”
“Hey — it’s not all fun and face-eating, kid. And besides… my arch enemy’s first known appearance was in a fucking Coleridge poem. Brit lit comes up.”
“…sure, why not.”
“Now go bug her for a while. I’ve got things to do.”
“Like take a massive shit? But hey, if you and your parahuman hearing would rather not distract yourself—“
“Jesus Christ. I’m gonna go talk to your friend the murder librarian.”
“Good choice, kid.”
Leather rolled out of bed. She’d had spotty sleep. Beguile had gotten under her skin — she guessed Beguile was good at that — and she’d been rehashing her first days getting to know Anchor. He kept hitting the same points. Make friends. Make contacts. Get people on your side. But hide everything. Don’t give shit away for free. Now here was Beguile practically daring Leather to…
Beguile knew shit Leather didn’t want anyone knowing. That bugged her. If Beguile got pissed at Leather, that could fall back on Leather’s older sister Danni, or Emma, or…
…Jesus, she really didn’t have that many people to worry about, did she?
“Guess that’s why I’m supposed to make friends,” Leather muttered, and began getting dressed. She knew where to start, if nothing else.