“…whoever she was, she wasn’t a Steve. She clearly wasn’t a Steve. So you didn’t lie to me. I get that.” She took a breath. “Was it a good offer?”
“Amazing offer. You couldn’t match it.”
“Yeah, well. How screwed are you, now?”
He laughed, slightly. “Pretty screwed.”
In the alternate universe coded ⎇001JW, super heroes and villains have been around for decades and tensions are rising between parahumans and their unpowered prosahuman cousins. This is Justice Wing in nadir.
A professional Steve never stands out — that’s the entire point. Supervillains employ Steves to act as lookouts and the Service employs Steves to monitor supervillains. The Steves were no one at all, and whatever opinions or needs they might have they kept to themselves. But now, the Steve assigned to the third-tier crook named Leather was standing out in every possible way. Having been forced into a compromising situation by Moriarty James — a well known ridiculous wannabe who was secretly the mastermind behind the Service and Guild alike — the Steve passed her ‘test’ in time for the two to be identified by the hero Darkhood. They escaped, but James made it clear the Steve’s feelings didn’t matter even as she offered him a significant promotion. After the other henches returned, jumped to the wrong conclusion, and attacked reporter Todd Chapman, the Steve found himself coming out to Leather as apothisexual — asexual sex-adverse — and couldn’t handle the constant sexual harassment Leather put him under after a night of being directly traumatized by Moriarty James. Expecting to be attacked, fired, or worse, the Steve was stunned to learn Leather knew his actual name was Jacob, and instead of being angry she apologized and made it clear that what she and James had done was unacceptable.
Having turned down Moriarty James’s job offer, the Steve has bound his fortunes to Leather, despite her instability. With all that happening… how does someone keep being the Steve?
Being the Steve
An Interviewing Leather Concurrence
After the blow-off, the Steve had his own escape route, the same as always. The Steves and the Henches never took the same routes. You had to maintain that deniability. You had to make sure that increasingly intelligent passive surveillance didn’t give law enforcement, DETAILS, or heroes a chance to tie the Steve to the rest of Leather’s slightly ridiculous household.
In this case, the Steve’s cover was simple. He was a jogger, using the hill that the target bank sat on halfway up as a ‘crunch run.’ The Leathermobile screeched into view right about when he was halfway up, smashed up the stairs to the bank, and the ruckus started, so the Steve dove behind a mailbox and gawked like several other pedestrians. Absolutely stock, absolutely simple. He went out of his way to make sure Chapman never saw him, but otherwise everything was normal.
When the job was finished and the Leathermobile had torn off to parts unknown, the Steve had rubbernecked a little while longer, bantered with a couple of other people, and then run back to the YMCA where he’d changed. He showered, changed into civvies, and then drove his vespa out and away. He got picked up by a semi along the way and they packed up the vespa and let the Steve change into comfortable clothes, then got him onto a loading dock down by the railyard. There were a ton of cargo containers – a good number of the standard containers were nine and a half feet tall, eight and a half feet wide, and fifty-three feet long. The truck had backed into a lock style dock on the loading dock, which let the Steve walk out without being visible from the outside. From there he was led to a set of containers being shifted by crane, and walked up into a yellow one. They closed and locked it up behind him, meaning he was the last to arrive – just as planned.
The container in question, once you got inside, was done up as living quarters. It was actually divided into sections – a fifteen feet ‘fore sleeper’ section with bunks and lockers on either side, a twelve foot head and shower midway through, and then the remaining twenty-six or so feet of the container was a single apartment unit. Leather’s personal accommodations, in other words. It was only half the travel arrangement but it was a good one.
The Steve got in, put a few things in his assigned locker – it had been preloaded with things he’d flagged but still had room for stuff – pulled out his Temple Slate and earbuds, then hauled himself up and into his sleeping bunk, which he then closed up and turned on the lights. He got his earbuds in, put on music, and began reading preloaded books – there wouldn’t be infonet access until they got underway.
An hour or so later there were some warning chimes. The Steve made sure he pulled the safety harness shut but otherwise didn’t much pay attention. A minute or two later the container shook and then swung up as a crane lifted it up and carefully locked it down into the well of a cargo train’s well cars. Locks that mounted the container in place thunked closed. About fifteen minutes later there were a couple of other warning chimes followed by a huge clatter – a second fifty three foot steel container was being stacked on top of their travel container and then locked in multiple places on the outside. Only after it was secure did docks on the top and bottom of the two containers push together and hermetically seal. There were three more chimes, and with a hiss the inner locks opened and ladders connected.
The Steve pulled the earbuds out, unhooked the harness, lifted the bunk panel open and slid out. The bagmen were doing the same in the two bunks next to him. Marco’s bunk was under the Steve’s and he also pulled himself out and up.
“I like this,” the blond bagman said. “It’s nicer than the last trip.” The four all queued for the ladder and climbed into the upper storage container.
The upper container was the ‘lounge car.’ Kitchen facilities forward, along with booth-tables. Aft was a more comfortable lounge with a nice tv and movie setup and other amenities.
“I’m startin’ coffee,” Marco said, walking into the kitchen. “And I may need to Irish it up – did the boss seriously tell you guys to drop all the bags?
“She seriously did,” the brown haired bagman said. “I mean, c’mon. She’d screwed up a kick, and Darkhood could’a died. You know the boss. In her head that means forfeiting the ill gotten gains.”
“It’s not like the point was money for this one." The blond bagman sounded pretty chill as well. “We knew this was gonna be a stock rate job that maybe gave us an additional payday.”
“I know, I know, but it’s the principle of the thing. I mean, how many hundreds of thousands were in those bags?”
“Rough estimate was north of a mill,” the brown haired bagman said. “And realistically I think we had two to three. I mean, they were loaded for transport to Grantham.”
“…yeah, I need coffee,” Marco said, shaking his head and laughing. “Makes my head spin.”
There was a slight shudder and the train started moving.
The Steve grabbed a soda and a bag of chips and headed back to the lounge.
Leather was lying on one of the long couches. She was in flannel pants and a sport bra, showing off her upper tattoos, and she was holding a Temple Slate straight-arm up. “Everyone okay?” she asked.
“Marco’s getting coffee but I think so,” the Steve said. “I figured you’d be celebrating. That was a good blow-off.”
“Yeah, it was fucking awesome,” Leather snapped. “Jesus. What’s wrong with me?”
“The kick?” the Steve asked.
“No shit the kick. You shoulda seen me in the car. I let Marco handle the escape—”
“That’s my job,” Marco said, walking back, the bagmen in toe. “Coffee’s on.”
“Thank fuck. And thank fuck, ‘cause I couldn’t. I was freaking the fuck out.”
“I can confirm that,” the blond said.
“Seriously – a fucking near perfect week even with the bad shit on Tuesday and I have to go and fuck it up in the fight we spent the week talking up in the first place. I’m gonna look stupid in the article.”
“Are you kidding?” the brown haired bagman asked. “Boss, remember the whole ‘relatable’ thing? People will relate. Besides, assuming Chapman doesn’t fuck up writing this thing, it’ll be a tense moment and that makes for good stories, right?”
“Heh. Relatable,” Marco said. “Like people will relate to just leaving a couple mill in bills behind?”
“It was a good move,” the Steve said, quietly.
“What?” Marco asked.
“It’s not that it’s relatable. Not this time.” The Steve opened his soda, looking off to the side. From the rocking back and forth of the train he figured they were still doing 10-20 miles an hour pulling out of the depot. “It’s honorable. Readers’ll come away knowing Leather has a line she doesn’t cross and a code of behavior. Used too much force? Leather doesn’t take the cash. Scales balance.” He snorted. “It’ll play in Peoria.”
“I wish I could say that was my idea,” Leather said, spinning around and sitting up. “It was just – right then taking the money just seemed wrong.”
“We’re criminals,” Marco snapped. The Steve looked away, trying not to show a reaction. It was better now but still—
“Yup,” Leather said. “Criminals who work for me. Me me me me me. This is my Jack O’Knaves breakfast joke. ‘Leather’s so nuts she once left twenty million in unmarked bills behind ‘cause she kicked a hero too hard.’”
“We weren’t anywhere near twenty million,” the brown haired bagman said.
“Oh, like the rumor mill and whisper campaign won’t up the total cash grab every time someone tells the story.” Leather rubbed her eyes. “It was a good fight, right? I mean – I know I kicked too hard but before that—”
“I watched you throw a motorcycle through a PATER van and knock it over making it slide back down the hill,” the Steve said. “Whatever else, that was cool.”
“Yeah. Yeah it was.” She took a deep breath. “Okay! Fast debrief and then we crash until tomorrow when I’ll divvy up paystubs plus the week’s bonuses. And if we’re having a fast debrief we’re eating because I’m fucking starved. Someone grab us all coffee and get nachos nuking and we’ll go from there.”
The Steve half-smiled, sliding onto the couch on the other side of Leather. He sipped diet cola and settled in for the debrief.
The Steve was feeling a little more comfortable around everyone, but that kind of thing would take time. So, after debrief he’d taken a shower and changed into sweats, and now he was lying in his bunk reading.
The bunks had panels that slid down, with windows in them. It was vaguely like someone had turned a coffin into a front loading washing machine. There was a sudden rapping – someone knocking on the panel from the outside.
The Steve jumped a bit, but unlocked and slid the panel up. “Yeah—”
Leather slid up onto the opposite side of the bunk, before sliding the panel back down. She was scrunching up on that side, which given her flexibility meant she took up little room. The Steve realized she was respecting his space, and adjusted accordingly to give her room to relax.
“Hey, OopsSteve,” she said quietly.
“Hey, OopsLeather,” he answered, as quietly.
“How doing?” she asked. “We didn’t get a lot of chance after our thing yesterday – y’know. To talk or discuss it further, and…”
“Yeah. Yeah, I appreciate it.” The Steve snorted. “I’m doing okay, mostly. Glad Chapman’s gone, honestly.”
“Heh. I get that. I’m gonna miss him, though.” She looked up a him. “Have I been better?”
The Steve smiled a bit. “Yeah.” he said. “I mean, you’re you. But you always will be.”
“Well, duh.” She looked away. “Wanna know a secret? I mean, I know one of yours.”
The Steve arched his eyebrows. “Sure?”
“No telling the Service?”
“No telling the Service.” He realized he meant it.
“Or the other guys? Because—”
“I won’t tell anyone, OopsLeather.”
“Okay. Yeah. Sorry. When I first started, Anchor beat the idea that you never give away things you don’t have to give away, especially about powers.” She looked at the Steve. “So… I have parahuman vision, hearing, smell, touch — the whole nine yards. A lot of people with regeneration – especially nerve regeneration – lot of us have the sense-package as a bonus.”
“Oh. Huh. How good is it?”
“Pretty good,” she said. “I can spy on people from two or three football fields away without binoculars. I can always hear a pizza delivery guy shut his car door so I know when he’s about to knock. I can taste when someone’s poisoned my food or, even worse, put pineapples on pizza. It’s pretty ginchy.” She half-smiled. “Back in the lair, I could even hear whole conversations being held down in the vehicle bay, aaaallll the way up in my room. If I listened carefully, anyway. Say, if I was keeping an eye on one of mine when he was alone down there with some blonde piece of trash.”
The Steve paused, flushing. “Oh,” he said, softly.
“Yeah, whoever she was, she wasn’t a Steve. She clearly wasn’t a Steve. So you didn’t lie to me. I get that.” She took a breath. “Was it a good offer?”
“Amazing offer. You couldn’t match it.”
“Yeah, well. How screwed are you, now?”
He laughed, slightly. “Pretty screwed.” He paused. “And… I should disclose something—”
“If it’s about fake blonde-fake Midwest-fake Brit-fake fakey faker, don’t. Not unless you’re actively in danger. Never ever break those trusts. You getting killed does me no good.”
“I wouldn’t. It’s not about that. Or her. It was actually from last night. The Prestige Job. It… it’ll sound like nothing—”
“Jerry Seinfeld became one of the richest people living off Central Park West by talking about nothing. I think I can keep your nothing in perspective.”
“Okay, well. This was just about when I was giving Marco the all-clear…”
As bars went, this one was passible. Fine, even. Which, for the Steve’s purposes, was perfect.
The Steve was in a somewhat broken in blue suit. That, a few passes with a comb, a pair of wireframes, and the Steve was just another tired salaryman in town for business. He settled in, got out the Wall Street Journal, and leaned back a bit.
A waitress walked up. She was wearing a white blouse and black miniskirt over opaque black tights – a standard enough uniform for a place like this. “What’s your thought?” she asked, smiling.
“What’s my… thought?” the Steve answered, smiling a bit, though only glancing up from the paper.
“On drinks? What’s your thought, tonight?”
“Oh.” The Steve considered. “Johnny Walker Black on ice?”
“Sure thing!” She dimpled and headed to her next table.
The Steve looked back down at the paper. Admittedly he was really looking through the window and across the street. The Meridian Museum of Art and Antiquities wasn’t top tier by any stretch, but it was a good sized building and on fundraiser nights they clearly could put on a good show. Men and women in formalwear they rarely got to put on milled about outside – the usual ‘smoker’s pack’ that those kinds of things attracted, of course. There were banners on the building’s sides – one for Egypt with a few pictures of not-quite-Tut level stuff. On the other side the banner was for Greece, with a few statues and – of course – the Mountbatten Urn, which looked dark grey with gold accents and pictures along the front. The Steve wasn’t sure what they depicted. It looked like a woman and her dog. Well, good enough.
The Steve got out his phone – this one was was a Tappa 610 messenger. Business style but three years out of style. Physical keyboard, no touchscreen but a little track-knob for the cursor. He pushed redial, then lifted the phone to his ear.
“Hello,” Marco said on the other line. He was on speaker in a car. Normally a bagman picked up, but tonight’s job didn’t use the bagmen – it was just Marco and Leather and the Steve. Marco for the getaway, Leather for the actual evening’s entertainment, and the Steve doing what the Steve did.
“Hey, it’s Drew. Are you guys still going to the trade show this weekend?”
“Yeah,” Marco said, over the road noise. “But we never finished registering. Is there onsite registration?”
“Oh yeah. I guess plenty of room, too. You just want to go past the badge pickup until you see a standalone booth. That’s onsite registration. Are we meeting for lunch?”
“Do they have a vegetarian option?”
“Yeah, yeah they do.”
“Then I guess we’re meeting for lunch. Got to motor.”
“Me too. See you then.” The Steve hung up. Another scripted call and response – letting Marco know there was no sign of trouble, at least so far.
“And Scotch,” the waitress said, setting a napkin down and then putting a glass of light amber liquid sitting in crushed ice on top of it. The Steve nodded amiably to her. Whiskey wanted ice cubes if it were over ice at all – crushed ice melted quickly and diluted the drink. The Steve didn’t actually care, of course, and even in character wouldn’t complain. Complaints would call attention to—
“Hey,” the waitress said. “Um… please don’t – I mean, don’t get the wrong idea, but—”
“Excuse me?” the Steve asked? He sounded bored and tired, of course, no matter how he might actually feel.
“…um… do I know you? I mean, you look so familiar. Did you go to school in Coventry, by any chance?”
“Coventry? I don’t know where—”
“Oh! Sorry. It’s a town west of here. I just… I’m thinking ‘no,’ then?” the waitress laughed, flushing a little.
The Steve was looking at the woman as carefully as possible – looking for any hint of Moriarty James in her bearing or bone structure. It didn’t look that way… “no,” he said. “I’m actually from Monument City. I sell fittings for plumbing. Copper, brass, and aluminum, actually. There’s a trade show in town—”
“Ah. Hah. Yeah. Of course.” The waitress dimpled again. “Had to ask! Thanks!”
“Sure,” the Steve said.
“You just… looked so familiar.”
The Steve shrugged. “I just have one of those faces.”
“I guess so. Let me know if you need a refill!”
Leather looked at the Steve. “I don’t get it,” she said, finally.
The Steve laughed. “Told you.”
“Yeah yeah. Now tell me what I’m missing. It sounds like everything went fine.”
The Steve chuckled again. “Sounds like it, huh. Yeah. Boss, that’s… that’s the opposite of how that kind of thing should go.”
Leather cocked her head slightly. “What do you mean?”
“A Steve doesn’t have one of those faces you think you recognize. A Steve has a face so unmemorable no one bothers to try and recognize it. Last night I was off my game. Today, that waitress probably remembers the doofus sales guy she thought she knew—”
“–and who she was hitting on,” Leather cut in.
“No, I don’t think… wait. Really?”
Leather snickered. “Yup. Let me guess. You’re aromantic as well as apothisexual?”
“…well, yeah. How did you know that—”
Leather rolled her eyes. “It’s been a day and a half – you seriously think I didn’t look this shit up. I wanted – want – to understand, OopsSteve.”
The Steve flushed a bit, but smiled. “That’s really cool of you,” he said. “But going back to my thing?”
“Right! Right. Go on.”
“Normally, if something like this happens… well, I call in for refresher training. But… I’m… not one hundred percent—”
“Yeah, it’s gonna be at least a year before I’m letting you out of my sight, metaphorically speaking. I get the shark pool problem.”
“…I mean, I’ve been doing this for a while so I can do a lot of that kind of retrain on my own, but it’s still a potential issue. I know that may sound ridiculous—”
“It doesn’t sound ridiculous. Dude, I don’t know your job. Not really. If you think it’s a concern it’s a concern.”
The Steve nodded. “You had to know.”
“Yeah.” Leather considered for a moment. “You know… things are just getting more complicated, not less. And if this article hits… they could get a lot more complicated fast. And don’t get me wrong – Marco’s great as a Guild foreman but he can’t really take on more logistics, especially since I don’t think he wants to.”
“You’re the best Steve in the business, but… I dunno. It seems like I need someone to help keep me on course. A… hm. Not a butler. A majordomo. Someone to handle shit, who’s got the explicit power to tell me I’m full of shit and to stop it.” She looked off to the side. “Because I’m not going to hurt another hench because I’m a selfish bitch. And I know I’m not good at the details. Idiot girl was right about that. I have no perspective. But you? You’re made of perspective.”
The Steve was a little stunned. “That… actually sounds like a good idea. I’d be paid by the Guild of course, but would answer directly to you. Like Cordelia Chase with Leo Lucas.”
“And not taking orders from blondie?”
“Money won’t be what she was offering, like you said—“
“I can line up Steve applications after we get settled in. If this is an actual offer.”
“It is.” She looked at the Steve. “If you want it.”
He looked back at her. “Is this out of guilt? Or to shut me up?”
She snorted. “I don’t do guilt, and tell anyone you want. This is because you’re right for it, and because I need it to be better at this. I have a good feeling about that article — Chapman’s… you may not like him but I do. I think this’ll be a thing. And… I don’t trust a lot of people. I’ve been burnt before.”
“But you trust me?”
“Sure. You’re dumb enough to be loyal to someone who’s unstable and has perspective issues, remember?” She giggled. “Do you really despise me?”
“I did. I don’t now.”
“Cool.” She looked off to the side. “So what do we call you?”
“For now? I’m not done being the Steve. We’ll have time to figure out the rest.”
“Cool.” She paused. “I still won’t call you Jacob.”
“Heh. I won’t call you Eve.”
“Damn right. And now? I’m fucking hungry again. Let’s nuke a pizza.”
“Works for me.” The Steve smiled a bit. Sometimes, when you made a call, it went wrong. But sometimes? It worked out. This could be the start of something.