Six passengers still in the last three cars. The dead aren’t my problem: they’re all civilian. My father used to tell me bedtime stories about the horrific things that some Big Bads have done with meta corpses – particularly the DNA. My mother’s partner once had to face a clone of his dead wife. The clone was trying to kill Mother, so he killed it. Jammed a shard of broken glass through its eye into its brain. After that he went to pieces, stopped working, and Mother took me on as a sidekick. I was eight. I’m good at this by now.
Someday I’ll have to tell the girls about the crazy stuff that happens – but first, right here and right now, I have to run through the code, pull the civilians out of danger one by one. Just far enough that they can get to the safe zone beyond the tracks. My powers aren’t much use to me in this situation, and I’m no better than any other short, thin girl in good shape. But after all, that’s what being a superhero is all about: helping people as well as you can, however much or little you can do.
Lannis breaks through her mental incoherence long enough to tell me there’s a woman and a baby in the next carriage – I hadn’t spotted them on a preliminary sweep. I file the bedtime-story memories away for now, and get on with the job. I’m so blinded by the smoke I can barely see them, but I get the civilians to safety just before the pall of black smoke in the ceiling space undergoes a flashover, exploding with enough force to jolt the whole carriage askew on the rails. With less than a second to spare, I dive for the doorway and scramble up the railway bank, gasping for air.
I can’t go on like this.
Lannis reaches down to pull me to the top of the bank, and I scan hastily to check that the rest of the team is all right. Lannis, check. Audrey… smoky, but yes. Rebecca… just turned up, helping the paramedics. Saxon… appearing out of thin air with some sort of businessman in tow. He’s stout enough that I doubt she’ll be able to do too much more teleporting tonight.
When I have breath to speak, my first priority is to ask Lannis if Audrey and I have missed anyone. We haven’t. Deep breath. Start coughing. Because I don’t see her wave or beckon or anything, I assume Lannis calls Rebecca over to us by telepathy. I shake my head.
“Civilians first; the team doesn’t matter until everybody else is okay. This job has rules, Rebecca, and that’s one of them.”
She goes away again, looking puzzled, and I see her pick up the baby from the last carriage, rock it gently. Rebecca is a healer. How rare. How terribly useful. However, I don’t have long to consider the dynamic of this untidy, half-formed team, for Audrey comes hurrying over to me with a garbled, worried story of a dying man and a threat against the metas in town.
“Well, where is he?” I ask.
“He – he was dead, I left the body -”
Not letting her finish, I lurch to my feet and slither back down the bank.
“Show me where,” I demand. “This is important, Audrey!”
Between us, we drag the body out of the burning carriage; I notice to my distaste that it is already beginning to char, but steel myself and sort methodically through the dead man’s pockets. Most of what I find, I have to discard.
“This is forged, this is forged, this is stolen… this… is…” I’m holding something I don’t strictly recognize, but I’ve been told about. “I don’t know what this is, but I know a man who would.” Mother’s ex-partner. That he will know is certain. Whether he will tell me… is not. He is the only one who tried to keep me out of this life. The only one who said that bodies and bullets and burning wrecks are no playground for a child. The only one who ever gave me a doll. I’ve had lots of weapons. Lots of books. Lots of tools. And one doll. I named her Clarissa and I left her behind when I took up the mask.
Standing some yards away across the clinker of the tracks, Audrey stares at me. “Hey, can we split anything you find?” she asks brightly.
“No. I’m just trying to find out who he was. I’m going to leave everything right here.” In one of the pouches on my belt, I carry a small Soviet-era spy camera – it was the lightest I could find. And I photograph the mysterious object from every possible angle, before slipping it gently back into the pocket it came from.
Turning back to Audrey, I say, “Tell me everything. Every single word he said.” And she tells me, and I nod. “I’ll run the community’s database on Gr, but just so you know ahead of time, the odds of my finding anything are slim.”
“I’ve got my own database I can run!” Audrey snaps. “Just because you’re some high-powered high-connected superhero doesn’t mean you can do it all. And what are your powers good for now? I got most of the civilians out of this one!”
“You did,” I reply, beginning to think I just might be able to spit fire myself in a few minutes. “But you don’t know jack about what you’re getting into! You don’t know the codes. You don’t know the safeties. You wouldn’t know a supervillain if he came up and spit on you.”
“Well, I would. And that guy,” she kicks in the general direction of the stiff “just gave me a lead on a supervillain that Miss fancy-pants Starlight didn’t know about either!”
I take a deep breath. I am sorely tempted to shout her real name at the top of my lungs, so that everybody knows who she is and she can never work this job again. But that would be an unmasking of sorts, and that is strictly against the codes. So I sigh, instead.
It seems Lannis heard us talking, because she comes down to join us.
“Hey, don’t – don’t fight. It doesn’t help anything. We’re a team, aren’t we? Why can’t we start acting like one?”
Feeling giddy from the smoke and the hard work and the aftermath of adrenaline, I sit down, rather abruptly, on the weed-matted bank. Lannis, still standing, glances up, and apparently sees that all the civilians are being tended to, because she waves one arm above her head, and the next person to arrive is Rebecca. I send her to Audrey.
“She’s been as much in the smoke as I have.” Because that’s how it goes. A good captain sees to his team first. “Where’s Saxon? We need to talk.” When Saxon arrives, I go on. “Audrey has received information that we may be dealing with a supervillain situation sooner than expected. Now, we’ve got a few choices here. I can call down the community’s fliers to deal with it, and you girls can go to ground until it’s all over. These things get nasty.” I’m still not going to talk about the clone.
There is a murmur of dissent; fair enough. I’ve never relished being sent down the storm cellar when times get rough either. So I continue to the other options. “We carry on exactly as we are and try to handle the situation ourselves. If we do that, all of you will be putting your families in serious danger. If your face is known, it’s a simple matter enough to find people you care about. And from there it’s a simple matter enough to use them as weapons against you. Audrey – your father. Lannis and Rebecca – your parents. Saxon – your father and brother. I know you think you can look after them, but the fact is you can’t. Trust me. I know.” But I’m still not going to talk about the clone.
“Third option,” I say. “You all mask up within the next twelve hours, and I get Jason Keller onside to do a big spread about tonight’s work. We’ll have to offer him something pretty serious to get favors like that – I’m talking photographs in costume. That will distract attention from your real personae.” Mother’s ex-partner was masked from the word go and it didn’t help him. And then I tell them about the clone.
There’s one more thing I have to do – tonight has shown me that. I have to get to Rhadamanthus just as soon as ever I can, because if we’re facing Big Bads here, we don’t want the one experienced player to be off the field with powers malfunctions.
“Can we help?” Rebecca asks. “Come on the quest? We can go in our new costumes if it’s better like that.”
“Thank you,” I say. I’m honored – really. That she would consider going with me – I know I’m not always the easiest person to get along with. “But this is a solo job. I’ll call down a flier to keep an eye on the city – and on you four – while I’m away. You won’t notice him. Promise.”
I’m exhausted, and hoarse from smoke. Rebecca doesn’t have time to help – she has to get home. The others… have to get home too.
I drag myself to my hidey-hole, to rest – sort of – and get Mother’s ex on the line to analyze the photos, and get a flier on the line to fill in for me for a while, and breathe steam to try and clear my lungs (it doesn’t work so well) and check with the community to see if anybody knows where to find Rhadamanthus these days, and run the database (which comes up with one hundred eighteen different Bads of various magnitudes all starting with Gr and this is probably a new one anyway) and get Keller on the line about an exclusive, and clean up and change into civvies.
If people knew how glad most superheroes are – even metas – to scramble into bed, under a Batman-printed duvet, at two in the morning, I swear they’d think twice about masking up. Especially if they knew about the things that stop us falling asleep, and about the proven necessity of loaded guns under pillows.