Saturday morning started earlier than usual. If the week leaves me feeling isolated, I often spend a late Friday night at a club downtown, nursing a beer and watching other people dance. If the week has left me drained – forced to interact daily as myself or my hero persona, like this week – I’ll stay home instead with a book or a favorite film.
The sun beat me up by less than an hour. The first half of the morning was spent with a vacuum, mop, and scrub brush. Over the summer and winter breaks, twins come home from college and take over house-cleaning tasks for several of us to line their pockets, but the rest of the year I’m on my own.
Paris had picked up second and third shifts for the day and so was coming by at lunchtime. Mid morning I got a text from Chu confirming the time and location of the afternoon raid. I checked the kitchen and, yes, I had apparently remembered to set a frozen package of beef out to thaw the night before, so lunch wouldn’t take long. I had a couple of hours left to play hero.
Pulling up the suspect list, I noticed another sheet had been added to the file and some rearrangements made. The new sheet listed flight powers, and the most highly-prioritized suspects seemed to be those who were known to fly, or (based on the cross-references in the database) had established allies that could.
Of those I had already Viewed and cleared, only Yellow Rose had her own flight power, so adding flight altered the angle of attack. However, I was skeptical that this would help the search. If you include all the ways that powers can provide “flight,” a lot of supers qualify. There are explicit flyers, of course, like Peregrine or Yellow Rose. Many supers with field projection or telekinesis, like Inexor or Molina, can lift and move themselves as easily as any other object. Even supers that manipulate materials like Polarity can often create an effect in their suit that either makes them buoyant in air or provides enough thrust for flight. Taking into account that the sniper may not have been working alone, the possibilities were myriad.
Still, the connections had moved two groups up the list that piqued my interest. Both were criminal groups of supers, often called “villain teams” because they had costumes and codenames just as hero teams did. Both had been spotted within the last month, but not in North America, which is why they weren’t initially considered likely.
The Few currently had five members at large in Sao Paulo. The group started a decade ago when four members of a Texas-based security firm were arrested for trying to run a “protection” racket, arranging for businesses to be vandalized and burgled unless they received periodic payment. They fled south, and one was confirmed to have been killed in a firefight in El Salvador. When they popped up in Brazil they added two local villains to their crew. Brazil’s government-aligned super forces tended not to venture much outside the Rio area, and a number of syndicates controlled much of the rest of the country. The Few fit right in.
The villain team had been reported as part of a turf war three weeks previously. Local police investigated gunfire and found the team destroying buildings in a junkyard that was used to alter and sell stolen cars. As soon as they spotted the cops, the villains ran, but were identified before they could get away.
I first brought up Doc’s lab over in Eutopia, and quickly elevated my vantage for a long-distance move. Rather than trying to hit specific landmarks, I just headed east as fast I could until I hit water. I dropped my View to study a map of the Atlantic Coastline. Sao Paulo was within my sites after about 20 minutes.
Finding the junkyard took another 20 minutes, and was only possible because the modern internet can match locations to satellite footage so easily. (At least JFK’s notorious obsession with space had yielded real benefits in communication here on Earth once NASA had finally given up on the ridiculous goal of trying to reach the Moon and focused on affordable launches to low Earth orbit.) At the present it seemed abandoned, the buildings half torn apart. As I turned the clock back 20 days, I got to see the cause first-hand.
I rewound rapidly while watching a door on a small outbuilding hanging by one hinge, and I stopped when I saw it had been restored. Allowing the scene to go forward again, I saw a man reach down with a gauntleted hand to tear the door off its frame.
The man wore a stylized helmet, gauntlets, and thick boots over what appeared to be regular clothes. This was Jank, the team’s only flyer – and that was using the term “flyer” loosely. Jank used impractically heavy metal accessories that could cause considerable damage when moved in concert with his focused power, and he could generate enough force to lift himself and another person with it. I suspected this slow and awkward mode of flight was too strenuous for Jank to keep up over significant distances.
The way Jank moved back from the door, it was clear that gunfire was the expected response. There were three men inside wearing greasy coveralls and firing weapons. The men had moved a tall workbench away from the wall and were crouching behind it. I could see them flinch as the sound of the shots reverberated in the small space.
Jank beckoned to the rest of his crew. Dearth and Dread were dressed identically in thin burgundy suits with full face masks. Iguana and Poison Frog didn’t bother with masks and wore T-shirts with animal patterns above camo-pattern fatigues. All four of them wore combat boots, harnesses with knives and handguns, and netting with tactical gear.
After a few hand signals toward the door, Iguana held Dread’s hand and the two of them disappeared. I could see Jank yelling something, and looked over to see that one of the men yelled something back. The standoff was over minute later when Dread and Iguana appeared directly behind the men, each with a gun already firing point blank at a different skull. Dread dispatched the third man with a third bullet before the man could finish turning around.
Looking around the junkyard, I noticed the rest of the buildings resembled their damaged state in the present, which told me I was near the end of the encounter. Two police vehicles had driven up at the yard gate, lights flashing, and four uniformed officers got out and drew weapons before moving into the yard.
The Few heard the sirens and were not idle. Dearth and Dread drew weapons and took up positions behind tall piles of scrap while Jank worked on opening a hole in the fence behind the out building. I watched the twins alternate cover fire while occasionally shifting positions. I hadn’t ever had to deal with “linked” supers, but the way they could effortlessly coordinate without any hesitation or visible signal impressed me.
By the time the two rear-guard supers turned tail and fled through the fence’s newest egress, they had given the rest of their crew a sizable head start. I followed them through streets and alleys of various sizes and, while nowhere near “speedster” levels of speed, the twins were certainly keeping a sustained pace of Olympic caliber. The cops would not be catching up on foot.
The pair were about two miles from the junkyard when they jumped into an aging coupe and sped away, shedding their costumes in the car and donning nondescript lounge wear. Their features were dark enough that they would not look out-of-place next to locals; based on photos in the file I had studied earlier, only Jank was pale enough to really stand out in southern Brazil.
The coupe pulled up at a sizable home built on the beach, walled in on three sides and overlooking the ocean. The other three supers had already arrived in an unmarked van, and everyone was in civilian clothes as they walked in.
I noted the house’s location and address, then with some difficulty counted back the right number of days from the present. I was in luck, in that at the same time Lamarck was shot a quarter of the way around the world in Ottawa, both Jank and Iguana were still asleep in their beds.
It was satisfying to update the “last known location” fields in the suspect file with the Few’s current whereabouts. The only issue for me was that in none of the snooping I had done did Poison Frog use his powers. The suspect entry was blank too. It was an itch I knew I would have to get around to scratching.
I had a bit of time before I expected Paris for lunch, so I headed upstairs to chop the veggies and brown the meat. It was less than ten minutes before the doorbell rang. I wasn’t expecting that, because Paris was happy to let herself in.
An opened door revealed, not my sister, but two of my closest friends. Larry and Vill stood wrapped up against the cold, their arms loaded down with bags of chips and two boxes of cola cans. I immediately let them in and unburdened them in the kitchen, and they happily doffed their winter coats in the warm house.
“Did I miss a message? I wasn’t expecting you,” I said as I hung their coats in the closet and went to check the simmering food.
Vill giggled, “We decided to come over and surprise you.” She put her hands in her pockets shyly and gave me a broad grin. The plump blonde was dressed in a baggy sweatsuit that always looked like it was about to fall off, but didn’t due to the ample curves that she was keen to conceal under it.
Larry mirrored her broad grin and pushed his glasses back up his nose, adding, “We brought snacks and drinks. We figured you wouldn’t mind the company.” Having shed his coat, Larry was in a t-shirt and jeans. He was a head and shoulders taller than me, and while lanky in college, he had put on significant pounds since. I never thought a black man looked good with stubble, but Larry never seemed to put in the effort to stay clean-shaven.
“You’re always welcome here,” I told them sincerely. “I just wasn’t expecting you. Have you had lunch?” They met each other’s eyes as they shook their heads, grinning, and then we all three broke down in relaxed laughter. Everyone in the room understood the transparent ploy: they had showed up early enough to guarantee I’d invite them to lunch. A variation of this played out at least once every couple of months, as Vill particularly was always looking for excuses for the three of us to get together. It seemed silly to her that the half of the group that had settled in the same city wouldn’t meet in person more often.
Stretching lunch for two into a meal for four was easily done. I boiled a pot of water and asked Vill to help me add some linguine while I finished stirring the vegetables into the meat. Larry retrieved their boxes from the car and started setting up in the living room. My guest wifi was plenty stable enough for the afternoon raid.
Lunch was on the dining room table at the same time Paris arrived. There were somewhat awkward greetings as my friends respected Paris’s desire not to be touched, and Paris rethought her expected topics of conversation for the meal in light of the added company.
I slid a premade pie from the freezer into the oven as we sat down to the meal. A quickly tossed salad and plenty of pasta filled out what otherwise would have seemed a meager serving of beef. Paris sat at the head of the table against the back wall, where no one would need to move past her.
“So, Detective Donnel, now, huh?” Larry opened.
My sister smiled. “Just this spring. I’m lucky to get to work homicide at my age.”
“It’s not luck,” I disagreed. “It’s dedication. You’ve always put in more hours than anyone else and shown what you could do.”
Larry nodded, “Don’t even try to be modest, Paris. Our boy here tells us what you’re up to; you’ve been ratted out.” He winked at her as he took a bite off his fork. Larry was the most outgoing of our group and had always been a bit flirty, in a goofy casual way, with my sister. “If you’re a detective now, what’s with the uniform? I mean, it looks good on you,” another cheesy wink, “but I thought detectives wore suits.”
Paris shrugged. “I’m on patrol today. Anybody on the force can sign up to pull extra shifts, and I decided that I would keep my edge better if I didn’t forget how to walk a beat.” She took two quick bites before adding, “Even during the week I try to work a double, one desk and one patrol, and unless I’m out talking to witnesses I just wear my blues all day. I worked hard for the uniform; I like it.”
Vill asked, “Don’t you stand out? If all the other detectives are in suits, I mean.”
That made Paris smile, and not nicely. “Honey, look at me. Ain’t no way I don’t stand out, makes no difference what I wear.” That got a chuckle out of me and Larry and an uncomfortable nod from Vill. She tended to get a little antsy when anything race-related came up, which was usually only when Paris was there as Larry and I avoided the topic with her. Vill had grown up in a white neighborhood in a white town in a white area of Wisconsin, where issues of race just weren’t discussed. It was a blissful ignorance that only white people could really afford to have, and we never saw any reason to infringe upon it.
Paris, in turn, asked about my friends’ career situations, and soon we were chatting about the vagaries of freelance software design and business services. By the time the pie came out, we all felt fully caught up on the parts of our lives that we shared. A couple of strained glances from Paris told me she really wanted to discuss some of our secrets, but I could only shrug in response. It would have to wait for another time.
Larry moved the conversation forward on safer ground, “So what do you think about the super strike?” He looked sideways at Paris as though he expected a strong opinion.
“What’s this about?” I asked. I didn’t see a confused look on Vill or Paris, so I was the only one out of the loop this time.
“Local news,” Vill responded. “Remember that freezing rain earlier in the week?” She caught herself, “Oh, right, you already said you were out doing repair jobs that morning. Duh.” She flushed and sat back from her plate.
I connected the dots. “Does this have anything to do with DST helping the police with service calls when the traffic got crazy?” Vill nodded. “I saw one of them out myself, Argent,” I added by way of explanation. That earned widened eyes from around the table, especially my sister. Whom I now realized I hadn’t told about this earlier.
Larry said, “Argent is definitely part of the group that’s striking. Apparently,” he continued with a half-moving mouthful of pie, “it’s a payroll issue. DST didn’t budget for the extra hours and DPD says they won’t pay them. An email from the city budget office insulting the supers leaked, and here we are.”
“Meaning what? No supers protecting Detroit?” The city would be a sitting duck for any criminal supers that could overpower police.
Larry shook his head. “Nobody seems to know exactly what it means, but the ‘striking’ supers are still covering on-call shifts. I can’t imagine them ignoring an emergency.”
Paris spoke up, “The loudest talk has been about them not cooperating with us on raids. Our SWAT budget has been repeatedly slashed the last couple of years because DST can provide the same support as an armored squad, but cheaper. I was part of a drug raid on Thursday and we had two supers leading the entry.” She had mentioned the supers’ involvement offhand at breakfast the previous morning, but it wasn’t unusual enough for me to ask for details.
Vill raised an eyebrow. “You’re both rubbing elbows with local celebrities this week, huh?”
I shrugged. “I can’t see this ending up in the supers’ favor. Strikes that put lives at risk get way unpopular way fast.”
Larry mirrored my shrug, “They seem to be hoping that the police chief will wise up quickly and respond with an olive branch. Everyone’s hoping this resolves before lives are actually put at risk.”
“Speaking of putting lives at risk,” Paris stood up, “I need to get to my shift.” At a pointed look from her I stood too so she could pass my way. “It was good to see you two.” To me, “You can keep ’em around a few months longer. Enjoy your game.”
My living room was set up with the recliner most centrally located in front of the flat screen wall display, because its main use was for the weekly raid and my occasional solo DVD consumption. My friends had gotten out a card table and set their boxes under it, their two monitors sitting back-to-back in the center. I personally would have figured that transferring macros and game settings to a laptop would be easier than transporting a full tower system across town, but everybody has their gaming quirks.
I donned and switched on my wireless headset before moving my TV tray, with my keyboard and mouse already atop it, in front of my recliner. “Hey Hector,” came the friendly light voice of Chu over my headset.
“Hi,” I replied, and continued warmly, “guess who decided to join me for lunch again today?”
My friend chuckled. “Once a freeloader, always a freeloader. You should know.” Chu teased us about the fact that, thanks to him, none of us paid a monthly subscription fee for the game we all played. Chu worked as a programmer for the game’s publisher and was eligible for a half-dozen free ‘family’ accounts that he gave to us. Since most of us only played that game during our weekly group session, this short circuited any discussion about whether one session a week was worth a monthly fee.
As the loading screen came up on my wall display, Terry, Larry, and Vill added their voices to the channel. Despite having a wife, two children, and a demanding job as a lobbyist in Atlanta, Terry was fastidiously punctual and never missed any portion of our game time. After a quick round of greetings, the channel went silent as we all logged in and prepared our characters for the day’s adventure.
Noah joined us midway through our pre-raid preparations. While Terry and Chu were both well-compensated for full-time, difficult work, Noah’s job was the one that most people would call “successful.” He had taken his skills to Wall Street and was now a prominent financial analyst and fund manager. Weekend work was a normal part of his lifestyle, now, and it was getting rarer that he managed to join us at all.
When the whole group got together, I was always entertained by how varied our lives were. We all started out as computer science and engineering double majors at the University of Michigan, where we became fast and (I hoped) lifelong friends. And while I knew there was no guarantee this would continue, it was nice that more than half a decade after graduation we still managed to spend time with each other regularly.
Chu’s generalist led the six of us to a plateau overlooking a dark forest, the entry point for the day’s encounter. We were playing a mid-level party from the Arcana faction, our second playthrough that we had started after we capped out our Nature faction characters the year before. All of us had switched out for different roles than we played the first time through, and were having a great time. My runic warder was acting as the party tank, which required good preparation and positioning and then pretty much played itself through most of the combat.
While the Arcanists were seen as a high-complexity faction to play, reviews of the game suggested their quests were the most varied and their overall story arc (which each of us other than Chu had taken pains not to spoil) the best developed. Today was interesting because, as we descended from the plateau into the forest as part of our first cut scene, we were confronted by hostile NPCs that we knew as friendlies from our previous playthrough. It was neat to see some of the interaction between factions that often seemed lacking in the game outside of explicit player-versus-player zones.
We soon got into the heavy business of exploring and clearing out the forest, with Larry’s beguiler enchantress keeping distant enemies under control while I drew close enemies to focus on me and the rest of the party chipped away with solid damage. It was Terry that eventually opened up the chat to current events once we had our rhythm going.
“Did anybody else notice how much the super teams were in the news this week?” he opened, and then waited for some noncommittal grunts of agreement before continuing. “First there was the DC super battle, then not one but two in Ottawa, and Peregrine involved in both.”
“Not really,” Larry said. “He was in DC, yeah, but he wasn’t actually in Canada for either of the two incidents either. He just likes media attention.”
“I thought he was involved with that Native American lady, Molina?” Vill spoke up.
“I think that was just Spinner and Delphic,” Larry replied. “Anybody else remember?”
Noah answered, “Yeah, that’s right. Peregrine was just the one that cussed out the guy on the morning news.”
Terry laughed out loud at that, a bit startling over the line. “That was hilarious! Everybody watched the clip, right?” Affirming grunts. “Crusoe looked like it was Christmas come early! And then Delphic revealing Krystal’s salary on air, did you see that? They’ve tried to push shorter clips of his interview that don’t include it, but I watched that one live.” He chuckled to himself as his character hit a giant forest animal with some sort of ice bolt and he started charging up.
“Two trolls incoming,” Larry said mostly for my benefit as a stun wore off them. I sent a pain rune at both and refreshed my shields. “I don’t know, it seemed like he was deflecting. Five million does seem excessive to help catch a criminal. Even when the teams actually stop villains in the act they don’t get paid that much.”
“Agh, took a crit,” I interjected, “heals please.”
“I got it,” Chu volunteered, and through the indecipherable muddle of different lights and sounds I saw my health bar fill. “I kind of see Delphic as more like a company than a person,” he offered. “Like, he’s not out there fighting, he’s providing information. The search engines make a lot more money than he does, and his info probably saves hero lives just like the armor and stuff they spend millions on. Seems fair.”
“If they can find the super that did it, it’s money well-spent,” Terry proclaimed. “But they need to find the guy quickly. You heard that Seattle and Dallas have already suspended their invisible supers until the sniper is found? That’s profiling or something.”
“Profiling is okay when it’s based on good data,” Vill said, and I thought she’d say more, but nothing came. I glanced over at her, and she had reddened again. Maybe she was worried it made her sound racist.
“Yeah, profiling just means trying to limit who could have done it by matching suspects to what you know about the criminal,” I jumped in, and saw Vill relax. “You’re right, though, Terry – law enforcement needs to step up their game and track this guy down.”
I was speaking as much to myself as to them. The Molina distraction had cost me much of yesterday, and as important as this time with my friends was, a hero-murdering super at large needed to be a more urgent priority. But other than the long, laborious process of clearing suspects from our long list, there wasn’t anything directly impactful that I could do. It was just a matter of putting in the hours.
I needed to set aside the distractions and focus my attention fully on this investigation: the one I had been paid a controversially large amount of money for; the one that was having collateral real-world implications. And as I resolved to do just that, I had to use a long-cooldown dimensional slide to intercept a nasty monster going after Vill’s squishy evoker.
No more distractions, I promised to myself, after we clear this raid.