2.1. Intermission (Scenes 1-4)

Scene 1 – October 20th
Interior MLED Compound, Early Evening
Niccolo Mellas

 

Quinn left the room, visibly dejected that they wouldn’t be allowed to help fight against Legion. I didn’t see why – the woman was stupidly dangerous, and unlike me, they wouldn’t be working from a safe distance.

“Vulcan, call Anima and Sequoia in from patrol, if you haven’t already,” Abe ordered, speaking into a dedicated mic rather than relying on the typical monitoring to communicate with Adam.

“They’re on their way,” he responded. “Do we have a plan, sir?”

“I’m working on one, Adam. Give me some time.”

“You’ll need our help,” Simone put forward – did she really expect the offer to be accepted? Quinn’s offer had been rejected less than five minutes ago. “New Venice isn’t exactly a one-horse town – you need us to help you cover it.”

“I hate to admit it, but you’re right,” Emilia agreed, and I blinked in surprise.

“Hey!” Simone protested.

“It’s dangerous,” Abe said, as though that wasn’t obvious.

Emilia shook her head. “Nic works at a distance,” she began, gesturing at me, “and Legion doesn’t have anything that will hurt him when he’s projecting – we need him to help scout the city. Simone can be transport only, that won’t be too dangerous either.”

“I can work from a distance too,” Holly put in. “I know my hand-to-hand skills aren’t going to be worth much against Legion, but I bet I can use lasers to cut off parts of her body mass.”

“Fine,” Abe conceded. “only from a distance. And only because you’re all over 18 – Sequoia will have to go home too, once he and Miriam get back.”

“Jack can help too!” I protested. “He turns 18 in only a few weeks!” And he enjoyed heroing too much to like being left out of it, no matter how dangerous Legion was.

“He’s still under 18 until then. You’re just going to have to live with your boyfriend staying a safe distance from the dangerous supervillain.”

“Well, when you put it that way…” I had been protesting in favor of his involvement more because I knew he would have wanted me to than because I actually wanted Jack involved, in truth, so I didn’t really mind Abe shutting me down.

“Alright,” Abe said, a moment after Holly shifting into Loki. “I think I have the beginnings of a plan.” It was a pretty simple plan, and it didn’t take long for him to lay it out: I would be scouting, as my projected senses were by far the fastest traveler of all of us, sent to check out any reports that Emilia received from console. Vulcan would go with Simone to face down any Legion that I could confirm the location of.

“Nic?” he said, turning to face me. “She was reported about ten minutes south of the Compound.”

“Give me a moment,” I said, and leaned against the wall so that I wouldn’t fall when I began projecting. “I’m going to try to only send my vision so that I can still talk with you guys…” I performed the mental gymnastics that had proved most successful at this kind of separation as I began.

While I had made a lot of progress in controlling my powers since I joined the Journeymen – I could now choose to start and stop projecting, and control where the projection went as well, even if I still projected accidentally half the times that I slept – separating out my senses remained a puzzle. I knew it was possible from dreams in which I had heard voices or music from a distance, without seeing anything, or vice versa, and had even managed to perform the separation myself a few times. But most of the time…

“…no, sorry, I can’t hear you,” I muttered, a little dejected, as both sight and hearing spun through space to land about ten minutes south of the Compound – as always, it was eerie to speak without hearing it, as the words came from my physical mouth instead of my projected self. At least I had left my sense of touch behind – I could still feel my shoulderblades pressing up against the wall. “But I’ll give you updates as I go.” I glanced up to a set of street signs, and reported, “Right now I’m at the corner of Lander and Evans and continuing south. No sign of her yet.”

 

Scene 2 – October 20th
Interior MLED Compound, Evening
Niccolo Mellas

 

When I reached the limit of my projection, still with no sign of Legion, I had snapped back to my body to find that Abe was gone – I later learned that Quinn had called with a sighting of Legion near to the them, and the boss had gone to escort them the rest of the way home. Meanwhile, Jack and Miriam had arrived back at the Compound, and my boyfriend was leaning against the wall next to me, watching me worriedly.

I met his eyes and smiled. “It’s okay, honey,” I told me. “I’m perfectly fine.”

He gave me a gentle kiss, then led me from the wall over to a couch. “I know, Nic, I just worry. Ever since…”

Ever since I had told him that I used to have trouble returning to my body. “That hasn’t happened in years, Jack,” I reminded him as he sat, then pulled me into his lap. I leaned my forehead against his. “I’m okay.”

“Ew, you two are so sappy,” Simone joked. “Get a room!”

You get a room,” Jack murmured, and she shrugged and vanished.

“Hey!” Loki snapped. “Don’t waste distance in a crisis situation, you brat-” he stormed out of the room, presumably chasing after Simone. Jack and I were left mostly alone – just us and Vulcan.

I sighed. “I feel like shit,” I quietly confessed to my boyfriend. “I couldn’t find Legion, and I wouldn’t be any help even if I did. I feel so useless.”

He shook his head. “You’re not useless, Nic. Just because you couldn’t help in this situation doesn’t mean you can’t ever help.”

“But can I ever help?” I asked him. “I mean, they’ve got me rated at a 0. That’s not even normal human levels of threat.”

“Threat rating’s not everything,” Jack reminded me. “But…” he hummed. “I think I might have an idea. Let’s meet up in the grounds when we can find some time for it.”

“Okay.” I leaned in to kiss him again. And again, and-

“Hey,” Vulcan said, and I pulled back in surprise – I had forgotten that he was still there. “Seriously, guys, get a room if you’re gonna go that far.” He jerked a finger at the hallway that led to the Compound’s guest rooms – mostly used by me, when overuse of my powers left me exhausted, or Loki, for undisclosed reasons. Plus the one that was permanently inhabited by Molly, of course.

I flushed bright red, then found myself yawning. “I probably should,” I told Jack, sadly. “I’m pretty tired.”

“Go sleep, Nic,” he said with an accepting smile, which quickly morphed into a grin. “I can tuck you in if you’d like.”

“Hey!”

 

Scene 3 – October 24th
Exterior Training Grounds, Afternoon
Niccolo Mellas

 

I shivered despite my hoodie as Jack and I walked into the grounds a few days later, after Legion had been caught. It was starting to get cold, but I hadn’t gotten around to digging a coat out of my closet yet.

“So what’s your idea, honey?” I asked him. My boyfriend hadn’t told me yet – something had always interrupted us, or someone was around, and he said he wanted it to be a surprise in the paintball game if it worked.

“I remember you telling me once about when your powers first manifested,” Jack began, leading me to a section of the grounds that was lined with training mats for sparring. “Your senses were bounced to other places, sometimes, but sometimes it was also to other times.”

“Yeah,” I cautiously agreed, “and any amount of precognition would be great, but I’ve never gotten that to work. Like, never. I’ve tried, but the closest I’ve gotten is a jumble of disconnected images and sounds, coming too fast and too different to be able to make anything out. That and a splitting headache.”

He nodded. “Right, but I’ve been thinking… what if you were going about it the wrong way, a bit?”

“How so?”

“An aunt of mine is a seer,” he told me, “and-”

“Your aunt Cecelia or your aunt Cassandra?”

“Cassandra,” he said.

“Of course.”

“Anyway, she told me once that the problem with seeing the future isn’t seeing the future, it’s understanding the future,” he said. “Apparently it comes in, well… a jumble of disconnected images.”

“Thank sounds familiar.”

“Right, exactly! She says she doesn’t see a single thing that will happen, she sees a ton of different things that are possible. She can filter it somewhat by focusing on a particular person or object to see what might happen to it, or try to find a particular outcome and see what can lead to it, but in general, the farther out she looks the less accurate and more painful her visions are.”

“Because the universe isn’t deterministic, and the farther into the future you look the more possibilities there are.” I considered this for a moment. “What are you suggesting, then? My powers don’t focus on specific things like that. Locations, I guess, but…”

He shook his head. “Don’t worry about focus – worry about time,” he said. “Shift just a few moments into the future, and you’ll be able to react to what an opponent does before they do it. If you can do that, your rating will instantly jump to a 1, at least. Even a single second into the future is enough to see someone’s next move – if you can push out even farther…”

“Focus on combat precognition, not precog in general,” I realized, and Jack nodded.

“Exactly.” He balled his hands into fists and raised them into a guard. “And I think the best way to do that is to give you reason to need it.”

 

Scene 4 – November 3rd
Exterior Training Grounds, Afternoon
Niccolo Mellas

 

“Why did you want to train with me?” Holly asked as we stepped into the grounds, both wearing warm jackets. “It’s not that I’m not happy to help with whatever it is, it’s just that, well… our powers don’t really match up all that much, and…”

“And you’re worried about Quinn,” I finished.

“…yeah. They haven’t woken up since the funeral. Or they haven’t left their room, at least.”

I bowed my head for a moment. “They’re going through a hard time, and you’re a good friend for supporting them. But you’re also a good leader,” I reminded her. “And I need your help right now too.”

After a moment, she nodded. “You’re right, I can’t focus on them to the exclusion of all else. What do you need?”

“I need your help with a new trick I’m starting to figure out,” I told her, starting to walk over to the sparring area. “It was Jack’s idea – a way to get a handle on my precog. I’ve mentioned that I’ve had trouble making sense of it, right?”

“Yeah, you said that it was too jumbled to make anything out.”

“Well, as it turns out, it’s because I was looking too far into the future.”

“Oh – because you’re seeing too many possibilities? And the farther you look, the more there are, and the harder to sort through?”

I sighed. “And of course you figure it out instantly, huh,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. “Why didn’t I ask you for help in the first place?”

She shrugged. “It sounds like you already have that figured out, though – focus on the immediate future and use it for combat precog instead of trying to go too far. If you want to look far away temporally I would suggest looking into the past – you’d be a great detective that way.”

“Yeah, I’m looking forward to that. Or backwards, I guess. But… well, I actually did manage to figure out how to get the temporal drifting working in general, I had to hold onto my real body less tightly and allow myself to drift, it’s just…” I struggled to explain. “Connecting all the near futures that could happen in the next moment – even in the next second – into something that I can use in the present isn’t easy. Does that make sense?”

She tilted her head in thought. “Hm. Do you mean that you’re having trouble interpreting everything fast enough to figure out what to react to?”

“Yeah, pretty much. Also, seeing and hearing everything one second in the future makes it easy to forget what’s actually happening in the present.”

“You just need more practice,” she told me. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any magical solutions – it’s just practice.”

“I’m pretty sure you do have a magical solution, actually,” I insisted. “See, Jack and I were sparring, but the problem is that I’m actually a better fighter than him when he’s not transformed – I’ve spent much more time on martial arts, since I don’t have super strength to rely on.”

“Ah,” Holly said in understanding. “You aren’t challenged enough that you have to rely on the precog?”

“Exactly.”

“But I’m pretty sure you’re a much better fighter than me, too,” she pointed out. “If you wanted a better match you should have asked Referee or Starling.”

“Yeah, but Molly’s out of town again, and who wants to ask Ben for anything?”

“Fair point.” She eyed me. “But you don’t want sparring, do you? You need to be forced to use the precog, not for it just to be an edge. You need something that you can’t dodge without seeing the future.”

“Yes.”

“You want me to shoot you with lasers.”

“I want you to shoot me with lasers.”

Holly smiled, shaking her head. “Alright, I can shoot you with lasers,” she agreed. “But tell me something first – how many people know you’re working on precog?”

“Jack, obviously,” I said immediately. “Abe knows that I’ve tried to get it working in the past, but I haven’t mentioned that I’m making another attempt. Vulcan also knows that I’ve tried it before, and that Jack had an idea for me to work on, but I don’t know if he has any idea what. No one else, I think.”

Holly nodded, her smile now closer to a grin. “Excellent. I don’t know how much progress we’ll make, but… let’s keep it quiet for the next week or so, alright? It would make a great ace in the hole in the paintball game, but it would have to be kept quiet.”

I grinned, then yelped as a low-powered laser zapped me. “Hey, no fair!”

“Gotta see the future, Nic!” she called. “Get dodging!”

Previous Chapter | Act 2 | Next Chapter

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2.1. Scenes 22-24

Scene 22 – November 14th
Interior Television Studio, Early Evening
Quinn Kaufman

Exactly one month after I first found my mother’s invention. One month after I was granted superpowers. Just 30 days after meeting my first superhero and supervillain in one night. Less than four weeks after visiting the private areas of the MLED’s compound and meeting a whole host of other heroes, including my new best friend, Holly. Four weeks since meeting a cold-blooded killer. Less than three weeks since meeting that same killer again with no costumes between us, and learning that my mother had lived far longer than I had ever expected – and that she was still gone forever. Just two weeks since I had committed to becoming a Journeyman – two weeks since…

“Mx. Kaufman,” someone said, drawing my attention back into the present, and I glanced up to see Lucas Apollon sitting next to me. “How are you feeling?”

“…nervous, I guess?” I confessed. “I’ve never been on TV before. I’ve never had this much attention on me before.” I glowered at him. “You said that it was Inspiring heroes who had to go on talk shows, not Approachable.”

“In general, yes,” he agreed. “But the options for announcing a new hero are either an appearance on a talk show or a press conference in which you would be expected to give a speech. Believe it or not, this is the better of the two options for you.”

I shuddered at the thought of having give a speech. “Fine. I guess you’re right.”

“I usually am about these things.” He said with a cheerful smile. “You read the briefing packet, right?”

I wiggled my hand in a sort-of motion. “It was a few days ago as a break from schoolwork, so it’s a little fuzzy.” School was ramping up in intensity as my finals for the semester began to approach, and between that, the new classes and events I was now part of as a Journeyman, and everything surrounding my father’s death, I had almost no free time. It was, I thought, for the best – the less time I had to think about… things… the better. It did, however, mean that things blurred together.

“I can give you a quick refresher,” Apollon promised me, and I focused on him as best as I could while he did just that:

Do speak clearly and concisely – don’t take too long to answer a question.

Do stay focused on topics selected by the show – don’t go on tangents.

Do display your personality – don’t overshadow the other guests.

Do…

“Thank you,” I told him as he wrapped up his summary a few minutes later. “But…” I swallowed, my throat dry, “do you have any advice to deal with stage fright?”

“Of course,” he said kindly.

Scene 23 – November 14th
Interior Television Studio, Evening
Quinn Kaufman

 

I watched from offstage as the show began – Jacob Ryder, the show’s host, greeted his audience in his usual bombastic fashion and gave a rundown of the major topics for the show. His last introduction would be for us – when he introduced me, Loki, and Canaveral, we were to walk onstage and take seats in the chairs and couch currently sitting next to his desk.

“…we’ll be conducting a video interview with Secretary of Metahuman Affairs Susan Thornhill – her meteoric rise and new plan to keep the DMO well-funded,” the devil-looking man was saying. “But before all that, we have some special guests. Please give a warm welcome to our visitors from New Venice’s MLED, the heroes Canaveral, Loki, and the newest member of their team, Newton!”

The audience applauded as we entered and sat. Canaveral took the chair, which left the couch for Loki and I. He sat first, one arm stretching across the back of the couch, dropping that hand down onto my shoulders as I sat next to him. I leaned into his body a little bit without really thinking about it – the contact felt nice.

“Thanks, Jake,” Canaveral said to the host. “It’s nice to be here again.”

Ryder smiled at him. “How long has it been since you were last on my show?” he asked.

“I think the last time was just after I moved to New Venice and was given command of the New Champions, about… what, four years ago now?”

“Sounds about right,” he agreed. “And Loki! Always a pleasure.”

“Thanks, Jake,” Loki said, a smile crinkling his eyes despite the mask covering his mouth. “I like being on too. You always make me feel very welcome.”

Ryder gave him a nod before continuing, “Now, you two are here to introduce the newest member of the Journeymen, yes?”

“That’s right, Jake. This is our newest member – and a good friend of mine,” Loki added, squeezing my shoulder subtly, “Newton.”

Newton

“Hey!” I said, waving first at Ryder and then the audience. “It’s great to be here,” I lied.

“Welcome to the Ryder Report, Newton – and to superheroism!” Ryder said with a huge grin, and the audience applauded. After a moment, he made a calming gesture and continued. “How long have you had your powers, if I might ask?”

“A month now,” I told him. “I took a while to decide what to do with them, and ended up skating just under the deadline for registration. I’ll try to be more punctual next time!” I added, making a weak joke. He laughed and so did the audience, so I suppose I must have been doing alright.

“Only a month, and you’re good friends with Loki already – you two look quite cozy there!” he observed. “Did you know each other before your powers manifested?”

Before I could answer, Loki cut in. “I’m afraid that’s skating a bit too close to secret identity stuff, Jake,” he said apologetically. “We can’t answer that.”

“Of course, my apologies,” Ryder said, sounding just as sorry. “I’m afraid that secret identity protocol sometimes slips my mind, as I’ve never had any reason to bother learning it for myself.” He spread his wings in demonstration of why – the man looked like a classic devil, with red skin, horns, and bat-like wings.

“Quite alright,” Loki assured him.

“But still, only one month and you’re already diving headfirst into heroism!” Ryder said to me, sounding impressed.

“Well, it’s not exactly headfirst – the MLED offers a lot of training and guidance,” I point out. “And I won’t be a full hero until Loki and I graduate to the New Champions at the end of May.”

“Graduating together, huh?”

“My 21st birthday is in May, so I will – after seven years – finally become a full fledged hero,” Loki agreed.

“And I’m 21 already, so it’ll just be six months of training before I graduate. Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?” I joked, glancing at Loki. He chuckled – his amusement much more restrained than Ryder or the audience.

Canaveral spoke for the first time in a while, noting, “The biggest distinction between experienced trainees like Loki and full heroes, to be honest, is what they’re legally allowed to do, as minors. But the truth is, Loki is every bit as capable as I am.” I wondered if he wanted to reassure Loki that he was valued, or if he had another goal – he had told me before we came on that he intended to leave the interview mainly to me and Loki, and only speak up if Ryder addressed him directly or if there was something he really needed to bring up.

“I’m going to do my best,” I said, this time more out to the audience, “but it’ll be a long time before I can match up to these two.” If he was trying to make the point that experience mattered, I was happy to help.

“Hey, don’t sell yourself short,” Loki protested. “You’re a fast learner and have a great powerset – you’ll be playing with the big boys before long.” He squeezed my shoulder again encouragingly, letting me know I was doing well.

“Speaking of powerset, what can you do, Newton?” Ryder asked.

“I have what I’ve been calling an expanded presence,” I began, naming my abilities in public for the first time. “Basically, my sense of presence, my understanding of how and where I exist in the world, extends beyond my actual body. Just about everything in this entire studio is touched by my presence, and I know where and what they are without even needing to look. And…” I raised a hand, and RYDER’S coffee mug rose with it. “…I can move them, as well.”

“I see! A sort of telekinesis combined with extra sensory perception!” Ryder observed.

“That’s a way of saying it, sure,” I said, a little sourly, and the audience laughed. “There is a little bit more to it than that, though – namely, that when I exert my presence, it affects me as well. If I were to try and pull at your desk, for example -”

“Please don’t!” Ryder joked.

“Just an example!” I promised. “Your desk is pretty heavy – If I was to pull at it, I would probably get pulled out of my seat instead of moving it. That’s why I chose the name Newton – because unlike most telekinetics, I have to obey his laws.”

“How did you learn that?”

“I snuck into an abandoned junkyard the night that I realized I had powers, to try them out. It was pretty clear once I started trying to lift heavier objects,” I explained.

“Newton, that… that junkyard wasn’t abandoned,” Canaveral cut in.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean the reason I swung by and met you that night was that the guard at the junkyard was freaked out and called us about the unknown metahuman,” he told me.

My hands flew to cover my mouth. “You never told me that!” I cried, mortified. “Oh my god, I feel so bad now! God, I need to… I need to find them and apologize, or something!”

“It’s fine, it’s fine!” Canaveral assured me as the audience laughed. “I swung by and let him know what was up on my way back to the Compound at the end of my shift, and he actually wanted to apologize to you for assuming you were a villain!”

I hid my burning-red face in my hands entirely as the audience laughed even harder. Loki rubbed the small of my back comfortingly, but all I could think of was how this was going to be the first impression I had on people all over the world – easily embarrassed, unobservant – because I had missed the guard – and generally not someone to respect. How could this have gone worse?

“Hey, it’s better than what happened the first night I had powers. My priest tried to exorcise me!” Ryder revealed, and the audience laughed even harder. “You laugh, but it wasn’t funny as a 13 year old kid! I was just trying to prepare for confirmation, and suddenly Father Theodore comes rushing at me with a cross and a bible, going ‘exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus’!”

I took a deep breath as I realized that the audience laughter was no longer at me, but at Ryder – he had seamlessly redirected their attention away from my embarrassment to himself. He really was a good host.

“Moving on to less heretical subjects,” Ryder continued as I straightened, “we have a topic that you requested to talk about, Newton?”

“Yes,” I said, feeling on firmer ground now that I was speaking about something I was much more confident in. “I understand that I’m far from the first trans superhero – that road was paved for us by Sister Mercy, and even in New Venice…” I glanced at Loki, suddenly realized that I didn’t know if he was out to he public. He gave me an encouraging nod. “…Loki is genderfluid,” I finished.

“Really?” Ryder asked, seeming surprised. I realized Loki must not have been publicly out until this moment – he seemed pretty unruffled on the outside, but I could feel that his arm was a little tense around my shoulders and my sense of presence told me that he was shaking, just a little.

“Yeah, I’m a girl when I’m out of costume,” he said, voice still smooth and confident.

“And a very pretty girl you are, too,” I told him, patting his leg in hopes of reassuring my friend. I hadn’t meant to out him if he wasn’t ready to come out, or just hadn’t been expecting it – I had told him that I wanted to talk about being nonbinary in the preshow chat, and he had agreed and said he would support me, but maybe he hadn’t been expecting to be cited as one of my inspirations for coming out as a hero?

“Thank you!” he said, seeming a little surprised and very grateful. He squeezed me shoulder a little, then relaxed – I could feel the tension draining out of him. I was glad that I had been able to help – to remind him that I was here for him as he had been for me. “It’s not quite as simple as guy in costume and girl out of it,” he said to Ryder, “but it’s simpler to explain it that way, at least.”

“Anyway, I’m far from the first hero not to match their birth gender,” I said to Ryder, getting back to the subject. “But I asked our strategic consultant, and apparently I am the first hero to use they/them pronouns.”

“Well, the first single hero, at any rate,” Canaveral noted. “Multiplex is a bit of a special case.”

“Multiplex is a special case,” I agreed – the duplicating hero was a hive-mind that included every insect that came too close to their central consciousness. They had once been a woman, but to my knowledge didn’t even identify as human at this point. “My point is that I thought it might be good to make myself and how I should be referred to clear to the public, since a lot of people probably aren’t familiar with what it means to be nonbinary.”

“By all means,” Ryder invited me, giving an encouraging smile. “Please, educate us!”

With Loki beside me, I took a deep breath, then began to teach.

 

Scene 24 – November 14th
Interior Mansion, Late Evening
Dominic Könberg

Mom and Morgan had helped Dad go to bed a little while ago – it hadn’t been one of his good days, so he was off earlier than usual – and we were now participating in the family’s usual Friday night ritual of watching the Ryder Report. While his show usually only covered the events of the day it was recorded, on Friday nights he included news from the entire week before, so it was the best way – or at least, our preferred way – to get the news.

Tonight he had introduced a new hero who would be joining the Journeymen in New Venice. As soon as the segment was over, Morgan paused the show, then steepled her fingers, clearly thinking deeply.

“They’re so cool!” Tristan burst, leaping up from the floor where he had been sitting tonight and jumping into the air. My little brother, only sixteen, had a big goofy grin on his face. “They’re my new favorite hero!”

“Oh yeah?” Mom asked, sending a brief, worried glance to Morgan. “Why’s that?”

“They’re trans, like me!” he said happily. “Well, not exactly like me since I’m not nonbinary, but still!”

“I’m glad you’re happy, brat,” Percy – my next youngest brother, at eighteen – began, “but isn’t there already a trans hero? On the Journeymen, even?”

“Referee is trans,” Viv confirmed. My twin sister was the smartest of all of us. Well, of the kids, anyway, I corrected myself. Morgan was brilliant even beyond Viv, even beyond Dad… even beyond how Dad had been, at any rate. “And Loki too, apparently.”

“Yeah, well, Referee is my age,” Tristan explained. “Newton is an adult! That’s the difference! And Loki wasn’t out until just now, so, like, whatever – why be ashamed, right?” He pumped his fist. “But Newton was just out with it, right away! So cool!”

Viv gave me an amused glance, which I deciphered easily. Newton was an adult, yes, because they would be graduating from the Journeymen directly after their six-month training period – that meant they were at least 21, or would be by May. And since they were apparently the best friend of Loki, who was only just reaching 21 himself, they were probably much closer to 21. Our age, in other words – and yet, Tristan never treated us like adults. “What do you think, Viv?” I asked.

“I think it’ll make things a bit more difficult,” she noted, “but they don’t have much experience yet, as they themself pointed out. As long as we still do it while Referee is away, they shouldn’t be a problem for us.”

“I… just meant about Newton in general, not about how they’ll impact the plan.”

“Ah.” She shrugged. “I won’t really have an opinion on them until I know more. They were obviously well-coached for this interview – they even had that little probably-rehearsed bit where Canaveral embarrassed them to make them seem more human – and it was a real softball anyway. Once they start going on patrol I might know more. We know what you think, of course,” she said to Percy, who crossed his arms.

“Not my fault that heroes are all the same,” he said defensively. The revelations that Dad had shared with the family a few years ago had led to Percy forming a thus-far-unshakable conviction that the system of heroes was irreparably corrupt. He was very glad that, under Morgan’s direction, we were planning to finally do something about it.

Viv stroked her chin thoughtfully. “I wonder what Devon… you know, Dad’s doctor?” she quickly added, as if we didn’t know about her crush on them. Well, I suppose the others might not have figured it out, but I was her twin – she couldn’t hide anything from me. “I wonder what they think of Newton – first openly nonbinary hero and all.”

Percy shrugged. “What do you think, Dom?” he asked, turning to me.

“I want to know what our moms think,” I said. I glanced to Morgan and Mom, who had risen while we kids chatted and slipped off to a corner to quietly speak. As I watched, Morgan nodded decisively and received a brief, supportive kiss from Mom.

Until I was sixteen, I had thought that she was just Aunt Morgan – our parents’ best friend, who lived in one wing of the family mansion and and emerged on a weekly – sometimes daily – basis to shower us all with affection, and with the literally magical gifts she created. On my sixteenth birthday, though, Mom, Dad, and Morgan had sat me and Viv down to explain that the three of them were a polyamorous triad – each of them loved the other two just the same. They had decided not to mention it to any of their kids until we turned 16 – and apparently Morgan had given birth to me and Viv, not Mom, which in retrospect should have been obvious since we had inherited her naturally white hair – because they weren’t sure if we would understand when we were younger. Polyamory had apparently not been very accepted when they were our age.

Fortunately, times had changed, and both Viv and I were fine with it – she had figured it out two years before, in fact – and so were Percy and Tristan when they were told. Hell, Tristan had tried to rope the rest of us into a plot to get the three of them together before he had been told, and had thus been brought in on the family secret a year early.

I still found it hard to think of Morgan as “mom”, though, even though she was my birth parent. Jennifer had always taken the motherly role in the family, while Morgan acted more as an aunt, and even six years after learning of the triad I still thought of Jenny as my mom and Morgan as… well, as Morgan.

Morgan turned to face the rest of us, Jenny’s arm around her shoulder in support. “Newton’s existence is a good sign,” she told us. “Their clear similarity to Starling means that they’re obviously another Ambrosia Company plant, but that’s good news for us. It means that Legion was probably in town to empower them, rather than that Ambrosia knows where we are.” She sighed. “It’s another pair of eyes and ears to watch out for until we’re ready to move, but we already had to stay clear of Starling and Canaveral. One more possible spy won’t make that much difference, particularly since we’re going to have to move soon.”

Viv’s eyes narrowed. “Are we moving the schedule up, then?”

Morgan nodded. “We’ll have to. I’ll slip Copperfield a hint, and we’ll keep an eye out for his distraction when he finally figures it out.”

My sister bit her lip. “I’m… not sure if I’m ready.”

Morgan put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “We have to. For Arthur.”

Viv chuckled and waved her hand off. “It’s not that, I know it’s necessary, it’s what we have to do to save Dad. I’m just not sure if I’m ready for combat. I’m still learning magic…”

“You’ll do fine,” Morgan promised her. “The helmet will help. And with luck you won’t have to fight at all.”

Percy laughed.  “Do you really think we’re going to have that much luck?”

Previous Chapter | Intermission

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2.1. Scenes 19-21

Scene 19 – November 8th
Exterior Townhouse, Late Morning
Quinn Kaufman

A few days after the paintball game, it was time to officially move in to the Compound. While I had been living there since Holly and Simone had brought me there from the hospital, I hadn’t actually been back home in that time. My stuff was still there – my books, my clothes, all the little knick-knacks that build up over the course of a life. I had been avoiding going back – I knew myself well enough to be certain that seeing the place empty and lifeless wouldn’t be good for me – but the time off that UNV had given me expired tomorrow. I had to venture back there to get my notes for school, at least.

Simone apparently had a lunch date today – her and her girlfriend had been on a break for reasons she didn’t want to go into, but were now ready to give it another shot – so she wasn’t here to help. Holly was available just as she had promised, though, and she held one hand in mine to help me stay grounded as I climbed out of her car and approached the home I had lived in for 21 years.

I paused at the doorstep of the house, staring up at it. “It feels so empty already,” I said. She squeezed me hand, and I squeezed back. “Let’s… let’s get started, I guess.”

Scene 20 – November 8th
Interior Townhouse, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

I had been doing better over the last week, but I found myself drifting in and out again as Holly helped me pack things into suitcases and cardboard boxes. I would be doing fine one moment, and the next I would remember wearing this shirt while out to dinner with dad, or telling him about what I had learned from this book, or how proud he had been when I drew this piece of artwork, and I wouldn’t be able to…

Each time, Holly patiently waited for me to come back to myself, sometimes nudging me gently or tapping me on the shoulder to bring me back. She seemed to have an almost uncanny ability to spot when I was drifting, and would resume speaking in the middle of sentences as though nothing had happened.

“How do you do that?” I asked her after one such occasion where I had spent who-knows-how-long just standing in my closet and staring at the first suit my dad had ever bought me.

“Do what?” She didn’t look at me as she spoke, busy taping a box of clothes shut.

“Spot it when I’m… drifting away from myself.”

She rested an elbow on the box and propped her head up on that hand, looking up at me where she knelt on the floor next to the box. “It’s hard to describe, really. But, well… I’m a pretty observant person, as a rule, and there’s a bit of a difference, although I’m not sure quite how to explain.”

“You explained magic pretty decently, give it a shot,” I said. “You might surprise yourself.”

“Alright. You have kind of a… I dunno… a presence to you,” Holly told me. “Like, you’re very there, at every moment.”

“Really?” I said, curiously. “I think I get pretty in my head, sometimes. You think I’m in-the-moment?”

She shrugged. “Maybe it’s just around me, I don’t know. But when you’re… drifting, you said? When that happens, something changes. Maybe it’s your eyes – they unfocus a little, I think.” Then she chuckled a little. “Plus you drift off in the middle of a thought sometimes. That’s pretty clear as well.”

I shrugged. “Maybe it is just around you. I mean, I don’t want to be wrapped up in my own head when I could be spending time with you, after all.”

Was that too far? Did I make them uncomfortable? Was this a bad time? This was definitely a bad time. I shouldn’t have said that. My eyes met Holly’s, searching for some sign that she approved or disapproved.

Her eyes weren’t on mine, oddly. They were a little downcast, and… was that a blush and a small smile? No, it couldn’t be, I decided as she looked up. The smile was there, yes, but the blush must have been a trick of the light.

“I like spending time with you too, Quinn,” she promised, and leaned forward to affectionately bump her head into my leg where I stood. “I know we haven’t known each other all that long, but I honestly feel like you’re one of my best friends already.” She stood, hefted the box in her arms, and carried it out of my room to join a pile in the hallway.

“I feel the same way,” I called, turning back to my closet and reaching for a few flannels. The MLED was going to be providing the ones I would wear as part of my costume, but those would have a kevlar mesh and I didn’t expect them to be very comfortable for normal wear. Besides, some of these had sentimental value, like the one that dad had…

Holly put a hand on the small of my band, and I turned to smile up at her. “Where was I?”

“I’m one of your best friends.”

“Right.” I began folding up the shirt that dad had passed down to me. “I don’t want to get too into it, but… I haven’t had any close friends since high school, just casual friends. But you’re becoming very important to me very quickly. I hope that’s not too much to say.”

“Of course not,” she promised me. “Didn’t I just say that you’re becoming one of my best friends, too?” She took the old shirt from me, then pointed to a suit bag in the back of the closet. “You should grab that suit. Most events the MLED holds will have you just in costume, or a formal version of it, but there are a few where heroes are supposed to go incognito, and you’ll want nice clothes for them,” she recommended.

“Like what?”

“There’s this art show that’s coming up in January, I think that’s the next one. And there’s a regional gala thing every summer that heroes can choose to go to either in costume or civvies.”

“I’ll take the suit, then.” I grabbed it and passed it to her. “That should lie across the luggage, not get folded up, right?”

“Right.” She set it atop the boxes. “Back to the friendship thing… on my end, it’s similar, I guess. My parents never sent me to school when I was growing up – I had private tutors until university – so I never really had close friends until now. Some in the Journeymen, but just because you’re both heroes doesn’t mean that you’ll get along, especially since there’s a wide age range. I mean, I’ve been part of it since I was 14, but as recently as last year we counted Blue Phoenix in our ranks.”

I thought back. Blue Phoenix… “The guy whose powers came in when he was about to die of old age?” He had made the papers.

“Yup! 83 years old and suddenly his body is made of burning blue energy that can take on any shape he can imagine. He definitely needed the training.” Her expression soured a bit. “And the crash course on the modern era, too.”

“…he didn’t understand you being genderfluid?” I asked sympathetically.

“Not in the slightest. Never respected Molly’s pronouns, either.”

“What a dick.”

She sighed. “It’s not that complicated, is it?”

“I mean, I don’t think so,” I promised her. “Cis people have just never had to think about gender before, so it comes as a complete shock to them. Even 1+1 is tricky when you don’t understand the concept of numbers yet.”

Holly shook her head violently as though trying to dislodge the thought. Her hair fanned out for a moment before settling back in a perfect spread over her shoulders, as she said, “Lets talk about something more cheerful. Friendship! That’s a happier topic, right?” She grinned.

“Right, friendship!” I decided that I had pulled everything out of my closet that needed to come, and stepped out of it to head to the bookshelf instead. “Friendship is…”

I blinked. It had, I figured, probably been a few minutes – I was sitting between two piles of books, one that seemed to be schoolbooks and the other my own personal books that I wanted to bring. I glanced over at Holly, who had just closed the last box of stuff from the closet and was now looking at me with concern. I managed a smile and gave her a thumbs up.

“…you don’t have to pretend to be okay, Quinn,” she said after a moment. “I know you’re not. It’s fine.”

I sighed. “I’m… not okay,” I agreed. “It’s just… dad was such a big part of my life. There’s so many things that make me think of him, and…” I actually felt myself tearing up this time. That was an improvement of a sort, I supposed.

Holly knelt next to me and put a hand on my shoulder. “Would you like to talk about it?”

I wiped the tears away. “No, I… I need to distract myself, that’s all. It’s just… really hard, right now.”

Holly bit her lip thoughtfully, and I restrained the sudden surge of attraction I felt. I wouldn’t be a good partner right now, no matter how wonderful Holly was – I couldn’t be nearly what she deserved. Besides, she had turned me down when we had had dinner a few weeks ago.

“I wish I could help,” she said after a moment, “but I don’t think I can. I mean, I could make everything look super generic so it wouldn’t trigger memories, but… you do need to see them, so you can decide what’s important and what can stay.”

“Everything is important, in some ways,” I said. “It’s all… it’s all him. That’s why I can’t live here anymore.” I closed my eyes, but the sense of my presence still filled the room. I could still feel the mattress that he had helped me pick out with the money from my first summer job and the computer we had struggled through building together and the desk that he had once written poems on before it he had gotten a new one and passed it on to me and-

Scene 21 – November 8th
Interior Townhouse, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

“…Quinn. Quinn! Holly said urgently. “You need to breath! You’re having a panic attack!”

I took a deep, gasping breath, my body suddenly covered in sweat. “It’s too much,” I whispered. “I can’t, it’s all so much, I can’t…”

She bit her lip again, seeming to know exactly what I meant. “I can’t block out your ESP. Is there something else that I can…”

“Something… something that dad and I didn’t…” I took another heavy, shuddering breath. “Magic!” I gasp in realization. “I had never known anything about magic, tell me about magic! Teach me something!”

She nodded decisively. “That I can do. Magic… Okay. I’m gonna try and teach you a spell. A really simple one – it’s one of the first that I ever learned, back when my parents were first teaching me magic,” she told me.

“You learned… from your parents?” I asked.

“Fuck, that… that won’t help you to know, that…”

“No… it’s fine,” I promised. “Your parents… not mine. Still not my dad. Keep going.”

“Okay. Okay.” She took a deep breath herself, then continued, “I’ve told you that everyone has their own style of casting magic, right? But there tend to be some similarities. Just about everyone uses some kind of physical motion associated with casting – I have hand gestures, Canaveral and Anima both use touch and physical motion in general. My father uses a flute, my mother uses hand signs just like me.”

“Is it like…” I took another deep breath, realizing I hadn’t in a while. “A focusing thing? I had to use hand motions when I first got my powers. I don’t need to anymore, but it’s still easier to use them. More theatrical, too.”

“The drama of it might be why some mages do it as well,” Holly agreed. “But it’s mostly for focusing, yeah. The important thing is that it’s something that you can put attention on, something you can focus your entire mind and soul on doing, because if your mind wanders the spell will go wrong. The more you practice the less focus you need, but especially at first, it needs to be something strong.

“And it needs to be something that works for you – everyone has their own style, remember. That’s why teaching magic is so difficult – what worked for the teacher may not work for the student, not unless their styles are similar enough.” Holly hesitated. “Whatever you come to may not be close enough to mine for my advice to help,” she warned me. “You probably won’t figure it out immediately, either. For some people it comes to them right away, but others have to try tons of different things before they find a focusing method that works for them. There’s a whole semester-long class on it as part of Magical Studies at UNV.”

I thought about it. Something that could occupy my entire mind, something that could get easier with practice… art was my first thought, but I discarded it after a moment. I was already pretty good at art, it was easy to autopilot. I needed something I still had to think about… something like…

“What about people with powers?” I asked. “Do powers ever fit into magical foci?”

“Sometimes,” she said. “A lot of mages start off with a trick of some sort – some minor magical thing that they can do that they expand into everything else. Canaveral’s thing with kinetic energy started as that, I think. The Magnificent Maxwell got his start that way too. Anyway, those tricks could be thought of as a power – especially Canaveral’s, he told me once he started with being able to sense kinetic energy and then began messing with it.”

“My presence, then,” I decided. “My ESP, that is – Dr. Anomnachi suggested a new name for it.”

“I like it. How would your presence be a focus, though?”

“I can mess with how I sensed things using it. Plug it in to my sight or hearing or whatever, or even narrow the scope to get more detail on a smaller area.” I hadn’t tried that yet, actually, but it seemed more than possible.

“Okay, that seems… yeah, I think I have a path to you casting from that,” Holly decided. “Just don’t… don’t hate me if it doesn’t work, okay?”

“I could never hate you.”

There was another one of those moments where I thought she was blushing, but an instant later it was gone. Was she…? No, she wouldn’t hide that from me, would she?

“Anyway,” she quickly said, “I want you to put a hand out, relaxed and a little open. Yeah, like that. Now just… focus in on the area in your hand. Cut out everything else, as much as you can.”

I did my best. My sense of presence began to shrink, the world around me changing from an extension of my own body to something separate from me entirely – a mildly disconcerting feeling, I hadn’t realized how used to it I had grown – until it was gone, just the dust in the air in my hand and my regular human senses.

I hadn’t realized how dusty the house was until now – my presence didn’t usually pick up particles that small. I suppose that without dad or I to…

“It’s okay, we can try again,” Holly said when I came back to myself. “Do you still want to?”

I nodded. “Yes, I do. It’s… it’s helping, I think. Making a new memory that has nothing to do with… well.”

“Alright. Focus back in on your hand, then.”

I did so with a little effort, the world sinking back into normalcy again. “I’m focused,” I whispered, worried that I would lose balance in the mental tightrope that focusing my presence like this seemed to require.

“If you have the mental capacity to speak, you’re not focused enough,” Holly gently scolded me. “Go deeper, if you can. Focus only on your hand and my voice.”

I did my best. I shut out the feeling of my clothes on my skin, the slight pressure of sitting on the floor. I closed my eyes and tried to set aside even the light that filtered through my eyelids. I tried to blot out everything there was, and… was doing so, with some success!

“When you have a perfect focus, your mind is like the tip of a arrow.”

I could still hear Holly’s voice encouraging me, but it wasn’t coming through my ears, now.

“The full power of your thoughts and will and soul all brought to bear on a single point.”

There were no ears, there was no body to bear them, there was no Quinn to use them.

“An arrow can pierce plate armor, with sufficient force.”

All there was was a small patch of space containing 0.01 pounds of air vibrating in patterns corresponding to the voice of my best friend

“When the force of your whole self is arrayed such, how could the universe not break as well?”

and that air was made of 1.19 moles of nitrogen and 0.28 moles of oxygen and and trace amount of argon and carbon dioxide and

“So thrust your mind forward, pierce through all that says reality must be static…”

and Holly’s voice was layered over lesser patterns of shockwaves that matched up to the sounds of two people breathing and a radiator humming and a dog barking in the distance and

“…and let there be light.”

and there was light.

2.1.21 Quinn doing magic

The sudden burst of light was blindingly bright and completely knocked me off the razor’s edge of my focus. Even through my closed eyes, it was incredibly bright – enough that I could feel an instant of warmth on my skin, enough that I was blinking and trying to regain my sight. Holly swore in pain, diving back and rubbing at her own eyes.

“Well, I think we can call that a success,” she declared when our sights had returned. “That definitely works for you. Maybe even a bit too well,” she joked, offering me a hand up.

“I think I might have gone too deep,” I agreed. “I may need to learn restraint.”

“Hey, it’s an effective flashbang,” she pointed out. “Well, the flash part, anyway. All you have to do is practice enough to pull it off without spending fifteen minutes build up to it.”

I paused. “Fifteen minutes?”

“Yeah. Lost track of time?”

“Completely,” I admitted.

“Pretty common when you’re putting together a new spell,” she promised me. “But you’ve clearly got a knack for this. Most people take way longer to find their method of casting.”

I shrugged. “I guess. How long does it usually take to get a spell to be quicker and easier?”

She shrugged. “Depends on how complex the spell is, depends how much you practice it, depends how much practice you have in general. I can usually put together a new construct in a day or two if it’s something simple, like… I dunno, a baseball… but the more complex it is, the longer it takes. The earpieces took two and a half years to get down to a usable 30 seconds, and I could probably cut the casting time further.”

“How long for me?” I clarified.

“For you? No clue, sorry,” she said apologetically. “But… probably a while. You’re not going to have a ton of time to mess with magic now that you’re doing school and heroing. And while you picked it up really quickly, you are a complete novice.”

“That’s true,” I said, deflating.

“It’s a pretty simple spell, though… maybe a month, if you find time to practice for fifteen minutes or half an hour every day? Whatever you pick next will probably come faster,” she promised.

“Great!” I grinned at her, feeling better. After a moment, I tried to school my face into something more serious. “I really do appreciate… everything,” I told her. “I know that… I probably seem like a bit of a shitty friend, putting all this on you so soon after we met-”

“Stop it,” Holly told me sternly. “Don’t worry about ‘putting this on me’ or whatever bullcrap. You didn’t ask for this to happen. You need support and I’m giving it to you, that’s all there is to it.” She smiled. “You’d do the same for me, right?”

I smiled back. “Yeah, of course,” I promised.

“Then don’t beat yourself up about it.” She leaned towards me a little then, as though changing her mind about something, pulled back and took my hand in hers instead. “Now let’s get this stuff back to the Compound.”

Previous Chapter | Next Chapter

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2.1. Scenes 16-18

Scene 16 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Continuous
Abraham Armstrong

I eventually stopped pacing, after realizing there was no way around it.

Vulcan couldn’t leave the flag until Jack was taken out. While it was possible that Anima had knocked him out of the game in the last moments before she herself was disqualified, I couldn’t assume that – it was more likely that he was still in the game, as was Holly, as was Nic.

I felt bad even thinking it, but Nic was a nonentity in this activity. His ability to push his senses outside of his body was a useful one, but it had no combat applications, and while it had a better range than Holly’s magic, in an area only a few blocks across it was flat-out inferior to what she could do. He had been trying since he joined the Journeymen to replicate what sometimes happened in his dreams – when his senses sometimes drifted forward or backward in time, not just in space – but had never had any waking success. Until and unless he managed to unlock that precognition, he was unlikely to ever pose much of a threat, and could therefore be discounted.

His boyfriend Jack, however, was a threat. In this game, he was the only one of the Journeymen who had a chance of getting the flag, and he was the only one left with a heavy bat to take on Vulcan. Not to mention that he was smarter than his role as a tank might suggest. Hopefully Anima had softened him up for me, but he was a high priority in this game – above even Holly.

Jack was a threat, but Holly was dangerous. He was a good kid – all the Journeymen were – but as a leader, he was cunning and ruthless. His control over light and sound was powerful and versatile, and constantly expanding in both scope and magnitude. I remembered him being able to do little more than brief pops of light and sound when he first approached the Journeymen, and now…

The world vanished.

Everything I could see, gone in an instant and replaced by darkness. Everything I could hear, gone. I could still feel a faint breeze on my skin, I could flex my feet in the thin soles of my boots and feel the rooftop beneath me, but…

Holly had made his move.

I get the picture, Loki, I called out – it, too, vanished into the darkness, and it was disconcerting to hear nothing despite knowing that I was speaking. You’re here to distract me from finding Sequoia, aren’t you? You know that he’s the only way you’re going to win this.

“How sure of that are you?” he asked – his voice bursting forth from every direction at once, surrounding me on all sides and giving me no clues to his location. “Perhaps we’ll win by taking you out, and Vulcan too. We’ve already knocked out Anima and Starling, after all.”

A phantom of Starling appeared, falling through the air and landing headfirst on a surface that was suddenly there with an unnerving crack and squelch. Anima’s body followed a moment later. Then Vulcan stumbled around me, battling with Sequoia and distinctly on the defensive. He collapsed a moment later as a gunshot rang out, revealing Loki standing behind him with a gun in his hand.

I swallowed. You’re getting pretty good at the psychological warfare thing, I quietly admitted. What I thought was quietly, at least. It was hard to judge without any auditory feedback. But it won’t be that easy. Vulcan and I are each better fighters than you and Sequoia put together. I stepped forward and waved a hand through the illusion of himself Loki had projected, and it curled around my hand like smoke, vanishing in moments.

“Mhm.” The world began to appear again, piecemeal – lines of light shaping the outlines of buildings and color filling them in afterwards, sound following in similar piecemeal fashion. The fallen bodies of my team remained – as the edge of the roof I was standing on appeared, Starling’s body shifted and fell off the edge, landing on the street level with a thud. “It’s not the only thing I’m getting better at.”

I narrowed my eyes. Holly wouldn’t be showing me the real shape of the world – he wanted me to stay away from wherever Jack was, I was certain. Whatever direction he was presenting as the obvious path – and one of the buildings looked a lot more inviting that the others, its rooftop slightly below the one I stood on rather than well above or below – was surely the wrong way.

But he knew better than to think I would just accept what an illusionist showed me, and mindlessly charge off the edge to my doom. If this was a double-bluff, it could be the right direction after all.

On the other hand… he knew that I knew that he knew better than that. It could be a triple bluff and be wrong again…

That way lay madness, I decided. Instead of trying to figure out how many layers of bluff there were to this, I sent a shockwave through the air. Air wasn’t the most precise medium for this trick, but it would give me an idea of how different the landscape Holly was showing me was from reality.

…nothing came back.

“What did you expect that to do?” Holly asked me. “…you do realize that a shockwave traveling through the air is just sound, right?” He laughed. “You can’t trust that, now can you?”

I narrowed my eyes. He was right – I wouldn’t have been able to trust it anyway, not with the illusionist controlling every sound around me. There was only one way to see through his lies – a leap of faith.

I dashed for the edge of the building, bounding across to the next as I had a thousand times. I came down for a landing, ready to absorb the force of touching down, and…

The rooftop shattered like glass as I struck it, illusion falling away. The real surface was perhaps a foot below it, just enough to throw me off without giving me enough time to absorb the force.

I wasn’t all that surprised, honestly. I managed to shrug off most of the force of the landing, although I had to tuck into a roll rather than continue running as I usually did.

It wasn’t just the surface of the building that had shattered when I landed – the entire landscape Loki had constructed was collapsing and reforming. Perhaps my leap of faith had been the right tack, and this was the right way to go after all.

My hope was confirmed a moment later when a bright flash of light shone right in my eyes, along with a deafening whine that forced me to cover my ears and shrink away. Blinking spots away and still clutching my head as both faded, I realized that the world Loki presented had spun in circles. I had completely lost my sense of direction in that moment – which meant that I had been going the right way.

Not that the knowledge helped, I had to admit, as I no longer knew which way I had been going. On the other hand, freed of the possibility of chasing Jack, I was free to focus all my attention on Holly.

“You’ve made a mistake,” I called.

“Oh? And what’s that?”

“It’s clear that I’m not getting away from you. That means that the only way out is through.”

“That might be intimidating if you had any idea where I was,” Holly pointed out.

“You’re close by,” I said confidently. “You can’t be maintaining a manual illusion this intricate from any great distance. In fact…” I ran to the edge of the building where it faced the street and hopped over.

And slammed into the wall of the next building, which had seemed to be the empty space of the street, then fell to the ground – once again, it wasn’t at the height it appeared to be, this time the real surface being too far up, and the impact was later than expected in an incredibly unnerving fashion.

“I don’t know why you would trust anything you see and hear right now, Holly said with a chuckle. “You’re in the power of the god of lies, remember.

“You’re no god,” I said, rising back to my feet. “You’re a very talented mage, yes, but you’re still just a kid. I’ve got a lot of experience on you.”

“I’ve been doing this nearly as long as you,” he pointed out. “Six years, seven… how much of a difference does that last year make, after all?”

“It’s not the years, it’s what you do with them,” I said, and sent a kinetic pulse through the ground.

This one came back to me, as I had hoped. The range wasn’t great, not in a solid object, but it told me how the city around me was actually laid out. And, as I had half-suspected, it was closer to what Holly was showing me than he was implying.

He really was getting better – he could maybe have put together an illusion as elaborate as this last year, but last year he wouldn’t have had the manipulative chops to pass if off as more than it actually was. With a few well-placed deceptions and regular reminders that everything I saw and heard was in his power, he was trying to get me to doubt my senses – even the kinetic pulse that I would have to rely on. He had been able to blot it out when I sent it through the air, but…

…but he had also been surprised by it, I realized. He had been able to figure out its purpose immediately, which just drove home how clever he was. But if he had been able to fake it, not just block it out, he would have done that instead of claiming the possibility. All that added up to me being able to trust what I got back from my echlocation pulse – if I got anything back at all, at least.

I began making my way through the artificial city, sending occasional pulses to check up on my surroundings and on whether or not Holly was within my range. He seemed to be starting to get desperate as I began to ignore the illusions – his taunting got sloppier, and the illusions more intrusive. He didn’t flashbang me again, though – I was guessing one of the agents refereeing had scolded him for it, as it could potentially harm me.

I was approaching a part of the city that I thought I recognized when I suddenly felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise, and dodged forward. There was the sound of a shot, and a splatter of paint appeared on the wall next to me.

“Finally pulling out that gun, huh?” I asked. “Too bad your aim isn’t great.”

“Maybe I’ve been practicing.”

I had to dodge more shots, herding me along the wall and across the street, and narrowed my eyes suspiciously. “I doubt it,” I murmured. He had never shown any interest in guns before, and certainly hadn’t logged any time in the Compound’s shooting range. It was much more likely that… I ignored the next shot, and it splattered against the wall behind me even though I ought to have been in the line of fire, judging from the others.

“You’re as poor a shot as you’ve ever been,” I said with a grin. “And these are no more real than anything else you’ve shown me.” But not without purpose, no more than anything else he’d shown me. I sent another pulse out, putting a trifle more power into it, hoping that…

Yes! He was hiding in an alleyway on the other side of the street from me, not far from where I had been when the paintball shots started. Holly was clever, yes, but real-world experience counted for a lot – and while she had been a Journeyman for years, there was a big difference between what they were allowed to do and what full heroes did.

“Perhaps I’m closer than you think,” Holly’s voice boomed out once more. “Aim doesn’t matter if I can get close enough to press the barrel into your back.” Having already primed me to ignore whatever he said, this was no doubt to make me think he was farther away. And if I hadn’t already located him, I might have bought it.

I walked back into the street and continued walking down it for a moment as though I didn’t think he was nearby, sending another pulse to check on his exact location as I did. Then…

I whirled and twisted, launching myself at Holly bat-first. I slammed into him heavily, knocking him from his feet, and the illusory world dissolved around me one more time – this time revealing reality rather than another layer of deception.

“I win,” I teased, standing and offering him a hand up.

Holly took it and pulled himself to his feet, eyes still alight with competitiveness. “Game’s not over yet.”

Scene 17 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Continuous
Abraham Armstrong

“Vulcan: what’s your status?” I asked as I began heading towards the flag again.

“Still fighting Hypnos,” he grunted. “He’s doing a lot better than he was last time we sparred, too. I already told you that, didn’t I?”

“Why are you fighting Hypnos?” I demanded. “He didn’t come up to the flag, did he? And you haven’t told me anything, I thought things were uneventful over there!”

“No, I came out to hunt him like you told me to,” he told me. “I called you when I found him and you said to pursue!

“I never – Loki. It must have been him.”

“Then… shit, is Sequoia still in the game?”

“As far as I know, yes.”

“Fuck.”

“Fuck indeed.” I redoubled my speed towards the flag. I caught a brief glimpse of Vulcan below me as I passed over one street – Hypnos was, as he said, doing remarkably well dodging his blows, almost as if… had he gotten his precog working? I would have to congratulate him, if so. Even so, as I landed on the next roof I heard Agent Delilah announce that Hypnos was out.

I didn’t stop or even slow. The flag was unguarded now, and the one player remaining on the Journeymen’s side was the one player who could-

“The game is over,” boomed Agent John. “The Journeymen have won, by taking the New Champions’ flag.”

Scene 18 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Late Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

“Good job, everyone,” Canaveral said, all of us circled up once more now that the match was over. “A lot of congratulations to go around.

“Loki, Anima tells me you created a new spell?”

He nodded proudly, wearing a goofy and distractingly-adorable grin. “A magical version of the normal earpieces! That way Starling couldn’t listen in on us and I could lead the team and contribute myself.”

“Very well done. You’ve also gotten much better at misleading people since last year!”

He deflated a little. “Didn’t work, though.”

“Don’t feel bad – I’ve worked against a fair few illusionists in my day. You’ve got a ways to go before you can trick me, but you’re well on your way.” Canaveral offered him a fist bump, which after a moment Loki accepted.

“Next, Hypnos. Are Vulcan and I right to think that you’ve cracked the case on precognition?”

He nodded, seeming just as proud. “It’s like thinking at right angles compared to using my power normally, and I’ve only got it out to about two seconds right now, but once I figured out the trick it was almost easy. It’s given me a new idea on how to approach my regular power, too.”

“Well done indeed,” Canaveral said again, and they exchanged high fives.

“Newton,” he said, turning to me.

“I know,” I said, glancing down. “I screwed up.”

He nodded. “You screwed up. Can you tell me where?”

“I shouldn’t have attacked, I should have kept the chase going,” I explained.

“Tell me, why did you turn back to attack?”

“…I guess… you looked like you were about to turn back. It seemed like the best way to get your attention back on me.”

He nodded. “It was, and I was. Anima had just called for assistance. If not for you slowing me down by another 30 seconds, I probably would have gotten back in time to help her.”

“That wasn’t wrong?”

“You have good instincts,” Canaveral told me. “You need to develop them a little more, you need to do some physical conditioning – you’re in good shape for a civilian, but as a hero you’ll need more endurance than you showed today – and you’ll need to brush up on your fighting skills. But for what was…” He tilted his head thoughtfully. “Your third time using your powers in combat, I think? Unless you’ve been going out without telling us…”

I shook my head. “I’m pretty busy with classes. It’s amazing I’ve managed to get enough free time to spend with you all, I would never be able to go out on my own, too.”

“Anyway, for your third time in combat, you did great.” He clapped me on the shoulder, then added. “You second-guess yourself a lot, Quinn. Have a little more confidence, okay?”

I nodded uncertainly. “So… if fighting you in the first place wasn’t the problem, where did I go wrong?”

“You left me in a blind spot,” Canaveral explained. “You ducked below the edge, where you couldn’t see me, even with your ESP, and that let me surprise you – because I could see you.”

“How?”

“I can do a sort of echolocation thing. It’s relatively short-ranged, and it works best through solid objects – that’s how I knew where you were. It’s how I knew the buyers of that drug deal I took you to bust had arrived, too.”

“It’s also how he saw through my attempts to mislead him,” Loki added.

“Having extra senses is one of the most useful things for any hero,” Canaveral said, his eyes flicking to Hypnos for a moment. “Anything that can give you information your enemies don’t think you have. Let that be the lesson for today – never leave yourself somewhere you can’t see the enemy if you can help it.”

Loki cleared his throat. “That’s not the only thing we get, I hope?”

Canaveral nodded. “Indeed it isn’t. Vulcan, would you grab the trophy?”

The huge man, still made of metal, went to a large box and produced a large golden trophy cup, emblazoned with an MLED logo. At its base, it said ‘Paintball Champions 2020’. Vulcan hefted the massive trophy as if it weighed nothing at all and passed it to Sequoia, who similarly had no difficulty holding it.

“Winners gather round your trophy,” Canaveral said, taking his phone from one of the lockers we had left our stuff in before changing into paintball uniforms and pointing it our way. “Say ‘we kicked superhero butt!”

I let out a brief laugh before joining in with my friends as we all chorused “WE KICKED SUPERHERO BUTT!”

2.1.18 paintball selfie

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2.1. Scenes 13-15

Scene 13 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Continuous
Holly Koval

 

“Shit,” I swore as the announcement came to me through Simone’s magical earpiece. I hadn’t had a choice there – Sequoia was necessary to get the flag. He had sworn up and down that he could get away from Starling without help, and I had let him try, but the arrival of Canaveral had made it impossible. Still, he hadn’t called for Simone – I had had to send her in at the last second, and had lost her for it. Things would get a lot more difficult from here out, without her to move us all around.

It would be tricky for me to get off the building, for one thing.

I decided to figure that out later, and instead did some quick thinking. “Sequoia: turn back,” I ordered. “Assist Quinn against Starling. He won’t be expecting you to rejoin the battle, and Canaveral won’t be able to get back to you two for at least a minute. Take him out before he can. Newton: Sequoia is coming to help you. Maneuver Starling so that the two of you will be flanking him, if you can.”

I nervously watched as Sequoia moved back to the pitched battle. As I had asked, Quinn managed to shift their fight such that Sequoia came from behind – not so that Starling would be surprised, as he had omnidirectional sight and his hearing was far too good to sneak up on him anyway – but so that it would be harder to respond to attacks on both fronts.

Fortunately, it seemed to be working. Between blows that he had to dodge or be knocked out at once on one side, and death-of-a-thousand-cuts on the other, Starling wasn’t doing terribly well. By the time Canaveral had pinned down his location and started moving back towards the battle, Starling had been taken out.

I breathed out for the first time in what felt like a while. Losing Simone was more of a blow to the Journeymen than losing Starling was to the New Champions – the benefits of having a teleporter couldn’t be overstated – but it was still a good feeling to strike back.

“Broadcast: here’s an update for you all,” I said, moving to the edge of the building and seeing that there was a fire escape. As I began descending, I told the team, “The enemy’s flag has been located, but it’s iced over so that only Sequoia can break through to it, and Vulcan is guarding it. Out best bet is to either gang up on him – which requires taking out the rest of the Champions first so we don’t get flanked – or draw him away – which is risky, to say the least. Headcount-wise, they’ve lost Starling, but we’ve lost Journey.”

“Not great odds,” Hypnos observed. “What can I do?”

“No, not really,” I agreed. “Your new trick might end up getting used after all, but first I want to thin the herd a little more, if we can.” I took a moment to check on Canaveral’s position, then said, “Newton: you couldn’t do much against Anima, correct?”

“No, not really. With her aura up she was too fast for me, and then she made a golem and I was outnumbered.”

“I understand. You couldn’t risk a hit, and fighting on two fronts isn’t easy.” Hell, we had just used that same trick against Starling. But… it didn’t work well against someone who could just ignore one of the sides. “I want you to draw Canaveral away from Anima, then – to your left, right now,” I told Quinn. “He should be in your sight in about fifteen seconds.”

“Already in the radius of my presence,” they confirmed.

“Don’t fight him if you can help it, just keep him chasing you.” I watched on one of my screens as they nodded, then bounced into action. One paintbrush shot towards Canaveral, attracting his attention, then returned to Quinn as they ran, and Canaveral pursued – away from Anima. Good.

“Sequoia:” I continued, “Anima is two blocks behind you and three to your right. Your left, now,” I added as he turned around. “Take her out. I’m coming down the building and will be near you to assist if I can.” I wouldn’t be able to use a shockwave against Anima herself, but I could easily destroy any golems she animated from the terrain in this artificial city – between that and Sequoia’s own durability, her golems should be neutralized. I would have to get closer to do it, though.

“What about me?” Hypnos asked.

I glanced at his position – his invisibility hadn’t broken yet, which was a good sign, and I suspected that the Champions had forgotten him entirely. It was easy to overlook the poor guy given his 0-ranked powers, although I had a feeling that that would be changing after his new trick was revealed. “Start moving towards the flag,” I decided. “It’s… five blocks to your left and one ahead of you. Don’t engage yet, but I want you nearby it.”

“Understood.”

 

Scene 14 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Continuous
Abraham Armstrong

 

I arrived back where Sequoia, Newton, and Starling had been and saw with some annoyance that Starling seemed to have been taken out. It must have been a good minute or so ago, too, for me to have been too far to have heard the announcement. Sequoia and Newton were both gone as well.

“Broadcast: status update,” I grumbled. “Starling looks to have been taken out. Sequoia and Newton’s locations are unknown.”

“Should I join the hunt?” Vulcan asked.

“No, stay with the flag. With Sequoia still out there, we can’t leave it unguarded. If we take him out, on the other hand…”

“Understood.”

“What about me?” said Anima. “I’ll note that I’m running a bit low on energy – I had to burn it pretty quickly to keep up with Newton. Kid’s fast.”

“Stick with what you’re doing,” I ordered her. “I’ll come to join you so they can’t gang up on us like they must have-”

I was interrupted by a light blue bat shooting unerringly at me, unguided by any hand, and I twisted the energy within myself to skid out of the way. It spun in midair and followed, and I dodged again.

This time, it pulled away, returning to the hand of the newest member of the Journeymen. Quinn gave me a cheerful wave, and I bounced after them.

“Anima: Change of plans,” I said. “I’ve found Newton and am in pursuit. Follow as fast as you or a golem can.”

“Can’t,” she grunted. “Sequoia just showed up. I’m going to be bit preoccupied.”

“…noted.” I didn’t want to lose Quinn, so I continued pursuing them at slightly under my top speed, not wanting to catch up until I had deciphered what their plan was.

They didn’t seem to be that interested in actually evading me, as when I began to fall behind they would pause, standing or lying on the side of a building and taunting me. If I slowed to much, they sent a dagger at me to spur me on. Definitely interested in the chase, here… but why?

My first thought was that they were having fun. They had bounced back from their father’s death remarkably quickly, it seemed, and judging from the joy they had had on that first night of trying their powers, they could well be the type to mug like this. If not, they were doing a remarkably good impression of it – they were doing what I suspected to be a not-very-flattering impersonation of me at this moment.

Or perhaps they hadn’t bounced back all that fast after all. Perhaps they were simply throwing themself into heroism, and this game, to keep them from remembering their loss. That might also lead them to spur me into a chase without actually trying to escape – to keep in motion, because of the grief that could catch up if they slowed down, much as I was catching up in the chase.

But far more likely than either of those, I realized, was that Holly had told them to keep me occupied. They were no doubt leading me far from Anima, keeping me from giving her backup against Jack – who in normal circumstances wouldn’t be able to take her any more than any other melee fighter could, as a single touch would let her safely drain him into unconsciousness. In this match, however, that draining power wasn’t allowed – all our powers were banned from direct use on other players – and he would have a far better chance. By Anima’s word, Holly couldn’t keep all five of the Journeymen manually connected and also lead – but could he do it with just four? Or even three, cutting off Nic – who still had yet to make an appearance – in favor of providing better leadership to the rest of the team?

As though spurred by this unpleasant thought, my earpiece crackled to life and Anima, her voice strained, said, “Having a bit of trouble with Sequoia. I’m low on energy and I think Loki is nearby – my golems are shattering as fast as I create them.”

“Shit,” I swore. If Holly was breaking golems – with shockwaves, no doubt – then he had surely cut Nic out, and had probably been directing the battle the entire time. I had let myself be complacent, thinking that the Journeymen were acting without an overarching plan, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

I skidded to a halt at the edge of the rooftop I was approaching instead of leaping, and with a twist I reversed my momentum. I didn’t know if I could get back to Anima in time, but…

I ducked instinctively, and another one of Quinn’s daggers flew over my head. My duck turned into a roll and I spun around again to see that they had leapt at me, probably seeing an opening in my sudden flight. I barreled towards them at high speed. This had gone on too long already.

They reversed course midair, jerking backwards as I approached and fell off the side of the building. My heart stopped for a moment before remembering that they could walk on walls with their power – hell, they had been taking brief pauses there for the entire chase! If I took the bait and looked over the edge, they would strike.

Instead, I knelt and put my hand to the roof I stood on. One of my lesser known tricks was that I could send a sort of pulse through objects, and use that to map them out to an extent. It took longer than was useful in combat – at least, it did if I wanted to avoid damaging the object, as a faster, more energetic pulse could do – but it was perfect in a situation like this.

The pulse returned to me, and my suspicion was confirmed. Quinn was lying on the side of the building, both daggers floating in midair virtue of their power and ready to strike any whatever came over the edge. Fortunately their perception power couldn’t see through solids, so they wouldn’t be certain where I was or what I was doing.

Instead of leaning out, I leapt – massive kinetic force sending me past them before they could react, then twisted with my power to spin myself around to view them and slow me. As their daggers shot towards me, I launched my own heavier bat towards them, and…

“Newton has been taken out by Canaveral and is disqualified,” declared Sam.

Two down, now, and Quinn sighed in disappointment as they began making their way out of the artificial city. But, as I had just realized, Holly’s ability to contribute increased with each of the Journeymen that were removed.

Holly was far from unstoppable, but… he added a lot of complications to a game like this. Already, their flag was undoubtedly beyond reach. If he decided to go for stealth, then we, having already lost Starling, didn’t have a great chance of finding her. Him. Anima, Vulcan, and I all had some way of expanding our senses, whether through my kinetic echolocation or by sensing heat or life, but… Vulcan couldn’t hunt until we caught Sequoia, and my trick was strictly short-ranged. And while his chances of taking the rest of us out weren’t great, particularly given his historically poor aim with any sort of gun, he did have what was arguably the best weapon in this entire game. So…

“Anima:” I began, intending to ask her to target Holly before he came to the same conclusion I had, but I was interrupted.

“Can’t… really… talk…” Anima hissed.

“Fucking…” How had I forgotten that she was outnumbered? I spun on my heel again and raced in her direction.

“Keep talking until I get there,” I ordered her. If I couldn’t get to her in time, I could at least know exactly when they were tagged.

“What… do you want… a bedtime-story?”

I snorted. “One more chapter, mom?”

“Fine… you little… brat…” she said with a faint chuckle. “Once… upon a time… I was outnumbered… and surrounded…”

“By two people?”

“By two people… who could be anywhere. It sounded like Holly was making full use of his increasing capacity for magic. He must have duplicated himself, or at least Jack, so that Anima didn’t know where their attacks were coming from. “And they… got far too close… for comfort… far… too…”

She stopped. “Damn it,I swore, slowing a bit. She had been hit, I was certain, and was therefore no longer allowed to communicate. I was too late.

 

Scene 15 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Continuous
Holly Koval

 

“God,” I wheezed, emerging from invisibility to give Sequoia a high five. “Finally. Anima had taken a long time to go down, even with me breaking her golems. She had animated their shards to harry me whenever she caught a glimpse of my location, used the inimitable light of her aura to spot my illusions – which wouldn’t reflect its light properly – and held Sequoia off the entire time. After several minutes he had managed to get a lucky blow and coat the woman in green paint, knocking her to the ground as he did so, but only after several blows from her that had, I suspected, nearly taken him out. He was still in the game, but I doubted he could take another hit even from a dagger-sized bat.

Anima pulled out her earpiece. “Finally… is right…” she said, clearly still trying to catch her own breath. “I thought that would never end.”

“Well, you didn’t exactly make it easy on us,” I pointed out, still breathing hard myself.

“Of course not.” She held up a hand and sparked a bit of aura, wincing as she did. “I probably shouldn’t have gone quite so hard, though. I burned through all the stored power I had, and was starting to use up my own reserves at the end there. Not terribly healthy for me.”

“Take some of mine,” Sequoia offered, extending a hand to help Anima up at the same time. He, of course, was as fresh as a daisy. In his dryad form, he was tireless, having a nearly endless store of energy – it would take a huge drain for him to feel it.

Anima accepted gratefully, pulling herself to her feet and drawing zoetic energy from him at the same time. “By the way,” she asked me, “how were you multitasking like that?”

“What do you mean?” I said, deciding to play dumb a bit. Loki was the god of mischief, after all – even though it wasn’t entirely natural for me, I had to be at least a bit of a prankster. Apollon would bug abut it me if I didn’t.

“You’ve been directing the other Journeymen this whole time,” she said confidently, “but I know you’re not good enough to be keeping five people connected manually and have the mental space to handle tactics as well.”

“Not manually, no,” I agreed. She had been knocked out of the game, at this point, she couldn’t tell Canaveral, so… “but I wasn’t doing it manually.” I gestured at my ear and made an illusion of an earpiece appear. “I’ve been working on a spell to replace earpieces for two years – these can’t be hacked. I cracked it maybe… six months ago? …and have even added some improvements!”

Her eyes lit up with interest. “So you were able to do tactics and keep the lines of communication open with the rest of your team!”

“Yup! And Starling couldn’t hack into them. You might be able to, now that you know about them,” I admitted, “but…”

“But it wouldn’t be easy, with how far from zoetic your tricks are, and we didn’t even have a chance of knowing about it.” Anima chuckled. “Very well done, Loki! You’ll be sharing them with us from now on, I hope?”

“Of course. They don’t offer many advantages if you’re not facing a tech villain – not yet, anyway – but if you are…”

“Motael hacks into our comms networks almost every time we fight him,” she agreed. “Jokes on him, next time.”

“Exactly. Now shoo, I have plotting to do!”

She shooed.

“What’s next?” Sequoia asked.

“Broadcast:” I said, making sure that Hypnos could hear us as well. “We’ve taken down Anima, which means that it’s the three of us against Vulcan and Canaveral.”

“The two strongest fighters on the New Champions,” Hypnos commented grimly.

“Yeah. Which is why we’re not going to fight them.”

“No?”

“Not exactly.” I tapped Sequoia on the shoulder and he faded from visibility. “Hypnos, are you somewhere hidden?”

“Yeah, why?”

“I’m about to cancel your invisibility.” I did so with a swipe of one hand. I could keep a lot of spells going at once – they were far easier than manual control – but I would need all the concentration I had for what came next.

“Sequoia, I want you to head over to the flag,” I told him, using my map to point it out to him. “Hypnos, I’m going to draw Vulcan out, then I need you to distract him. Use your new trick.”

“How are you gonna do that?” Sequoia asked.

Instead of answering, I concentrated on the map, zooming in until I could see the details of Vulcan leaning against the frozen-over flagpole. My powers had excellent range, allowing me to create spells like the map, but manual detail work got harder the farther from me I was working. I had to be very careful here…

I magically spoke into Vulcan’s ear – the same one he wore his earpiece in – in as near an imitation of Canaveral’s voice as I could. “I’ve taken out Newton, and Anima and Sequoia took each other out,” I lied. “Hypnos and Loki are the only ones left. They’ve got no chance of getting through your ice, so I want you to come out and help me hunt them down.

Are you sure?” Vulcan asked – I swiped the soundwaves away before they could enter the earpiece, bringing them to me instead.

I’m sure,” I repeated. “The flag is safe, all we need is to mop up the last stragglers. I think I’ve got a bead on Loki’s real position – although who knows with her – so focus on Hypnos.

“Him,” Vulcan corrected, standing up from his leaning position and stretching. “He’s Loki right now, he’s a him.”

I couldn’t help but smile, hearing the man correct Canaveral even without me around to hear – as far as he knew, anyway. Canaveral still had trouble keeping my pronouns straight, so I had thrown a mistake in, but I hadn’t expect Vulcan to bother protesting. He had never been all that close to me when he was on the Journeymen, after all. “Right, him. Sorry.

“Don’t apologize to me…” It sounded like a familiar refrain, too.

“Broadcast:” I said, cutting off the communication with Vulcan and reopening it with my team. “He’s heading out now, Hypnos. Try and catch him in a minute or two and lead him as far from the flag as you can.”

“I’ll do my best,” he swore.

“I know you will. Sequoia,” I said to the wooden man, “I know stealth doesn’t come naturally to you-”

“Hey!” he protested, and I smirked.

“-but try to be as silent as you can. It’s on you to win this.”

“What about you?” he asked. “You’re taking on Canaveral?”

I glanced at the map one more time, eying where Canaveral was – he was pacing thoughtfully, but before long he would come to a new strategy. I had to act and distract him before he contacted Vulcan for real. “Yeah,” I confirmed. “I’m taking on Canaveral.”

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2.1. Scenes 9-12

Scene 9 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Continuous
Holly Koval

 

When a bell rang to start the match, I immediately leapt into Simone’s arms. “Take us to the tallest building, up there,” I ordered, pointing to it. Canaveral had taught me that the second-tallest building was a better viewpoint for overwatch, as the tallest building was the first place anyone would look. With him as the opposing chessmaster, though, I knew that he would skip the tallest, thinking that I knew better. “The rest of you, scatter for now.”

The world shattered and rebuilt itself around us as Simone bent space itself to her whim, and I slipped out of her arms a moment later. A few quick gestures set up a command station for myself – a spell that captured a 3d map of the surrounding area and rendered a model of it for me to view, one which I could expand into a more detailed view from any location. Developing it had been the most difficult spell I had created, up until I finished the earpiece spell.

Speaking of, I activated the final piece of that spell, which Simone had stopped me before I had had time to explain. The earpieces also relayed to me a view of what their wearer would be able to see, and I tossed up a set of four illusory screens so I could see it as well. I skipped summoning my own view, of course, and a moment later I dismissed Simone’s as well – she had glanced curiously at the screens, and her own viewport had immediately become recursive and headache-inducing.

Finally, I threw up an quick invisibility bubble around all of us. Invisibility was remarkably simple – just duplicate all light entering the bubble to the opposite side and at the same angle, and remove all light that would leave the bubble. I should have done it first, I knew, not a full minute into our arrival, but no one should be able to see me or Simone from ground level anyway, so…

I took a moment to scan the map. I selected one particular spot and expanded it. “This is a good spot for the real flag,” I told her.

She patted her belt theatrically – the real flag still invisible – then gave me a thumbs up and vanished, the space where she had been shattering like glass and reforming without her. Only a few seconds passed before she returned.

I kept an eye on my teammates’ viewports as they moved, but devoted most of my attention to the model map. I didn’t know exactly where the New Champions had started, not until I actually found them, but I knew it was roughly opposite to us within the arena. And, of course, they could move the flag just as much as we could…

Or, I thought with a sigh, they could take a page from my book, and bunker down as we had last year. I had found the flag, covered in a thick layer of ice that must have been generated by Vulcan. The man himself was leaning casually against it, eyes on the sole entrance to the room it was in, and it was clear that he had no plans to move.

“Well, no plan survives first contact with the enemy,” I said to myself. “Broadcast: change of plans, everyone. Vulcan iced over the flag so we can’t get at it. I think…” I zoomed in a little farther, then nodded. “Sequoia, I think you can break through the ice, but it would take you a bit. We’ll need to either draw Vulcan away or gang up on him.”

“I can draw him away,” Hypnos offered.

“Hypnos: that might be the way to go, but as a last resort, remember,” I reminded him. “Stay out of sight for now.” I stroked my chin thoughtfully. “Hmm…”

Canaveral was roaming freely, but was quite a ways away from Anima and Starling, who were closer to each other – although not too close, as they were moving in different directions. Starling, in fact, was too close to Sequoia for comfort – we would need him to free the flag. Who could I send against them to reduce the New Champions’ numbers… “Newton: Anima is two blocks ahead of you and one block to your left,” I told Quinn. “Take her out, if you would.

“Sequoia: Starling is hot on your tail,” I said to him. “I’m going to have Journey carry you away from him – we can’t risk you being taken out before we get the flag.”

“I can handle him for a bit,” he offered. “Keep him tied up so he can’t find anyone else. I’m tanky and he only has daggers.”

I considered it. “Do it, but if you start having trouble, call for help immediately,” I decided. I didn’t think it was a great idea, but I wasn’t going to micromanage their battles unless they really needed it. If this was a real situation, I wouldn’t wait for my teammates to call for help before sending assistance, but they had to learn to call for help when they needed it as well.

“Journey: bring Sequoia the rest of the way to Starling, then come back here and keep an eye on the battles with me. Be ready to drop in and assist one of them if they need it, or to harry Canaveral if he comes to help himself.”

 

Scene 10 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Continuous
Abraham Armstrong

 

I bounded across the simulated rooftops, keeping my ears open for reports from my team while I scanned both the horizon and the streets blow me for any sign of the opposing team. As I landed from one long, power-assisted leap, my earpiece crackled to life.

“I’ve found Newton,” Anima reported. “They have the flag clipped to their belt. Moving to engage.” That… didn’t make sense. Giving the flag to Quinn, okay, I supposed – Simone had the highest mobility, but Quinn was highly mobile as well and had ESP to prevent a stealth approach. But the person with the flag engaging instead of running…

“Journey just dropped off Sequoia, who’s coming at me with intent,” Starling reported. “The flag is clipped to his belt, so I’m engaging.”

I sighed. That explained it – two flags? Holly must have created illusions to hide them. No doubt their entire team carried a ‘flag’ – of course, it was almost certain that the real flag was elsewhere. “Broadcast: don’t prioritize flags carried by the Journeymen,” I said to the whole team. “Loki has created illusions to hide its true location.” I paused for a moment, considering, then added, “Our best path to victory here is to take out their team, rather than to find their flag.

“Starling:” I said, switching to a direct line, “switch to hunting players, not the flag.”

“Understood.”

The real flag was somewhere, but almost certainly not with any of the Journeymen. Classic shell game – the ball wasn’t actually in any of the shells, it was in the magician’s hand… or in this case, probably invisible and somewhere hard for someone who couldn’t teleport to get to. No real point in searching for it, not when we outclassed the Journeymen in combat skill.

 

Scene 11 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

 

I hadn’t expected fighting Anima to be easy, but I had expected to have a decent chance at least – Loki wouldn’t have sent me to fight her if I hadn’t had a chance, would he?

Apparently he might have. I had rushed in with my bat outstretched, hoping to catch the heroine by surprise, but she dodged as easily as if she did it every day. A brilliant white energy, burning like fire and crackling like lightning and drifting like smoke all at once, had sprung up around her like an aura around the edges of her body, and she was incredibly fast with it active. It was, I knew, the zoetic energy of life that she controlled, being used to enhance her physical abilities – it didn’t show up on camera, but I had read descriptions of it.

I had to rely on my presence to help me stay out of her way as she swung her bat, bouncing around by pulling and pushing on the world around me. I was trying to put some distance between us so I could think, as at that moment all I could focus on was dodging. It wasn’t harder than dodging Legion had been, but it was taking longer – Canaveral had made me leave pretty quickly.

“You’re doing quite well!” Anima said, giving me a smile. “Especially without any training, yet. The surprise attack was a good idea.”

“Thanks,” I gasped, “but getting some training first… might have been… a better one!” As I leaped over her bat again, I pushed her, finally separating from her and backing up.

She paused for a moment as well, glancing over herself. I had gotten struck her with a single strike during the melee, a streak of light blue running down one arm, but she wiped it away with her sponge.

“Shouldn’t you be spending energy on that healing?” I pointed out as I tried to get my breath back. Anima could run out of energy, I remembered from her explanation of her power – perhaps I could outlast her? It seemed more likely than beating her right now, I had to admit to myself.

“I suppose so,” she agreed, and her aura flared up even more powerfully for a few moments. “Better?”

I theatrically shaded my eyes. “Sort of,” I said, blinking. Through my presence, I saw her slide her foot back and felt some of that blazing energy sink into the ground – she was taking advantage of my apparent distraction to create a golem.

Actually, many golems, I realized as a horde of sparrow-sized birds burst forth from the concrete, each only the size of a fist. Life energy sparked between them, marking it all as only one intelligence as they flew in formation. A single, larger bird would have been too heavy to fly, I supposed.

The birds came after me and I had to bounce back into the air and continue moving in order to dodge them.

I reached out with my presence to try and grab them and shove them back, but it was difficult to focus on all of them at once – instead, I shifted to trying to grab one of them and break it.

That didn’t work either, though – I was wearing a paintball outfit rather than the PA4 (which didn’t seem fair to either me or Starling, whose powers were also boosted by his suit), and as a result I couldn’t safely put out enough force to break the concrete. I could push beyond my limit, I supposed, but that would lead to massive bruises. Not, I supposed, that I was likely to escape them anyway – not with the way I had been jumping around already. While I was roof-running I could use more gradual acceleration, but dodging in tight quarters needed –

I leaped into the air over a swing instinctively, reminded at the last moment that Anima was also a threat. Her aura had dimmed until it was nearly imperceptible when she animated the swarm of birds, and the swipe of her bat that I had only noticed when it disturbed my presence wasn’t quite as fast as they had been – that was all that had saved me.

“Loki:” I spat, caught between a golem and its master, “I’m having trouble on my own.”

“Understood. Sequoia also requires assistance, against Starling – Journey will take you closer to them.”

The amazonian woman materialized below me as I fell and caught me in a bridal carry. She gave Anima a jaunty salute, and then we were gone.

 

Scene 12 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Continuous
Abraham Armstrong

 

“Newton just said something that I couldn’t catch, then Journey appeared to evacuate them,” Anima reported. They were definitely coordinating even without earpieces, then – as I suspected, Loki was connecting the group. I wondered if they had chosen a  specific leader – probably Hypnos, who hadn’t been seen yet. “I couldn’t quite tag them – they’re quite good at dodging,” she commented approvingly.

“Did they get you at all?” I asked.

“Once, but not enough to take me out. I’m making sure it’s all scrubbed away now.”

“Good.”

“I was wearing Sequoia down, but Journey dropped Newton off a moment ago, and she’s holding me off to allow Sequoia to escape,” Starling said crossly.

“I’ll swing by to assist,” I said in answer to him. “Also, it’s they, not she.” Anima was closer, but I was faster – well, she was nearly as fast when she was wearing an aura, but to get that fast ate through her stores of energy pretty quickly. I, on the other hand, was able to get to him in less than 30 seconds.

When I arrived, Starling was sparring with Quinn on what looked like pretty even ground. Both had enhanced senses of some sort, and I could only guess that Quinn’s TK was making up for their comparative lack of experience as a fighter. Both had a similar amount of paint decorating them, although not enough to have disqualified either, yet.

Jack, meanwhile, was leaving. It took me a moment to realize why he wasn’t being evacuated by Simone – unlike Vulcan, his wooden composition left him not much weightier than he was normally, and certainly within Simone’s capacity. But Starling was an expert at throwing weapons, and could easily tag out Simone if she appeared simply by throwing one of his daggers – even if it might come at the cost of another hit from Quinn. Simone’s transportation abilities were one of the few advantages that the Journeymen had over us in this match, so Holly was probably unwilling to risk her.

On the other hand, I thought as I leapt towards Jack, the dryad’s enhanced strength would be necessary if they wanted to free the flag from the icy prison Vulcan had placed it in. What use protecting their queen if they left the king vulnerable?

Jack spun to face me as I came in to land, heavy bat out first, and managed to grow a wooden shield just in time to block me. The shield, covered in my dark red paint, was discarded a moment later, breaking apart as easily as if it had been made of dry leaves. He swung his bat through the cloud of particles, probably hoping that it would surprise me.

It had been a good idea, but I had dealt with such things before and wasn’t surprised even a little. I used my shorter bat to block his – twisting with my kinetic power to stop the force of his blow – and swept his legs out from under him. Sweeping a man made from hardwood stung a bit, but he was on the ground and defenseless against my heavy bat as I brought it down, and…

An amazonian figure materialized beside me, grabbing my arm and causing the world to twist around us.

I twisted the bat’s kinetic energy, turning its downward swing into a sideswipe before Journey could vanish again, and was rewarded with a wet-sounded thump as it struck Journey, who sagged, knowing that she was out.

It took a moment, as her teleportation had no doubt thrown the watching agents off momentarily, but John’s deep voice spoke around us only a few seconds later. “Journey has been taken out by Canaveral and is disqualified.”

One down – four to go.

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2.1. Scenes 6-8

Scene 6 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Early Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

 

“Alright, gather round!” Canaveral called, gesturing for everyone to circle up. Today was the annual paintball game – the New Champions vs the Journeymen. It was the most heroes I had ever seen in one place – all but two of the professional heroes in New Venice were present. Zookeeper was on patrol, as there had to be at least one person on patrol at all times – although for today, the console was being covered by a regular MLED agent, rather than a hero on standby – and Referee was out of town again. Apparently, Canaveral had sources – one source in particular, I was guessing – that told him this weekend would be a good time for almost every hero to be busy.

We circled together, and Canaveral smiled at us. “Most of you know how this works,” he began, “but we’ve changed the rules a little since last year, and Newton has never taken part in our little tradition. So here’s the short version.

“A lot of MLED teams hold some sort of tournament as a teambuilding exercise. Back in Vegas it was gambling – we liked to lean into the stereotypes – but here it’s paintball! Well, sort of.

“We’ve added a new element this year,” he explained. “Instead of just trying to defeat the other team with paint, there’s an alternative win condition – you can also steal their flag. The Champions will have a white flag with a black MLED logo on it, the Journeymen get a black flag with a white logo. Get your hands on the opposing team’s flag and escape any pursuit, and you win regardless of how many players are left on either team. If one of your enemies can recover your flag before you get to safety, however, the game continues. If everyone on a team gets knocked out, that team also loses. Clear?”

We all nodded, and he continued. “Now, because I like these tournaments to serve as training as well as fun, it’s not just paintball, it’s paintblade. We’ve had foam bats made and soaked with paint, to roughly simulate the capabilities of your powers.” He broke away from the huddle to take one long bat and a shorter, dagger-sized bat, both stained a deep red, from a nearby table that was full of colorful weaponry. “Very roughly,” he admitted. “You can use your powers, but nothing that could endanger anyone – that’s what the paint is for.”

“Do we get to pick our weapons?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No, they’re assigned to you based on your powers. The bats are particularly powerful abilities, which can take out myself, Vulcan, or Sequoia with enough hits, or others with just one. The daggers are abilities of more average strength, which can take out non combatants with enough hits, or the three of us with lots of hits.” He held up a hand to forestall complaints. “Vulcan, Sequoia and I are all either physically tough or capable of negating damage, so it takes more to take us out.”

“I was actually going to ask how it’s judged if someone is out or not.”

“We get a few agents to watch and keep score for us,” he told me. “They judge when someone is out and will be judging if someone has escaped pursuit with the flag. The should be on the loadspeakers already – say hello, guys!”

“Hello!” A cheerful, high-pitched voice. “I’m Sam!”

“Hey there. Delilah here.” A more measured alto.

“‘sup.” A deep, rumbling voice. “John.”

“They’ll make a localized announcement whenever someone gets knocked out,” Canaveral explained. “If you’re close enough that you would have seen the battle, you’ll know who was disqualified and by who. If you’re too far away, though… well, I’ll pass out the bats in a moment, but first let me go over the other stuff you’re getting.”

He clipped his bats to his belt, then took two boxes from the table and handed one to Loki. “These are the earpieces that we use in the field. Each box has five. Register your name with it when you put it in, then speaking the name of a teammate will let you speak to them, or say ‘broadcast’ to speak to everyone on your team. Whoever is designated team leader can listen in to everything, if they choose to. Use them to keep your team updated on your status. Any questions about them?” We all shook our heads. “Right.”

Canaveral began passing out the bats. Anima took a large paintbrush bat in light red and a sponge, which confused me for a moment until I remembered that she could both heal and animate powerful golems to fight for her, as well as drain people of energy with a mere touch. Starling was given a pair of shorter bats in dark green, seeming resigned at the reminder of his lower power. Vulcan received two massive bats in dark blue.

“Color-coded, so it’s easy to tell who did what,” Loki explained to me as Canaveral reached the Journeymen’s side of the circle.

I, like Starling, got a pair of dagger-sized bats – mine were light blue. Journey, in bright yellow. Hypnos stared dejectedly at his single paint dagger in gray. Sequoia tried to comfort him, but the two large bats he had been given in light green weren’t helping. Finally, Loki received a single dagger in black, and…

“You get an actual paintball gun?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I’m the only one here who has ranged attacks that don’t involve flinging things,” he pointed out.

“I guess…” I had been a little worried by how little firepower – paintpower? – our side of the game had in comparison to the New Champions, but seeing that Loki had what was probably the best weapon in the game, I felt better.

 

Scene 7 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

 

With the weapons passed out, we grabbed our respective flags – each hung on a large pole, currently being carried by Sequoia – and an earpiece each, then split off to head to opposite ends of the elaborate arena. It looked a great deal like a few blocks of the city, although bare and undecorated – as we walked, Simone told me that it could be reconfigured into a ton of different layouts. We would get ten minutes to plan and to find a place for our flag before the game started.

“Anyone object to me taking charge?” Loki asked when we reached our starting point. “No? Good.” He held out the box that had contained earpieces. “First off, put these back, they’re a trap as usual.”

“How so?” I asked. Everyone else seemed to know what he meant, though, so I pulled mine out of my ear and returned it.

“Starling is a tech hero,” Hypnos explained. “He hacks the system every year so they can listen in on us.”

“In the past, we’ve had three options. I can manually operate a magical comm system, which that takes up so much of my attention that I can’t do much leading – we can forget the comms entirely and operate without coordination, which never goes well – or we can use them, and accept that we’ll be listened to when we do.”

“We won last year with them listening in,” Simone said. “But… the year before, my first year, we lost with you coordinating instead of leading, Loki. Why go back to a losing strategy? I assume that’s what you’re doing.”

“Because last year’s strategy isn’t going to work again,” Loki explained. “We had Referee with us then, and no one else had realized quite how much of an equalizer she is. And Vulcan was on our side too, and…” he sighed. “Blue Phoenix as well. This year, however, we’re on our own, and we have a distinct lack of firepower.”

“How so?” I asked. “We’re losing out on bats, yes, but you’ve got the best weapon out there.”

He shook his head. “In theory, sure. In practice? Lasers are a lot easier to aim than guns, and shockwaves I can flat out control even as I aim them. I’ve never been good with guns – it’s not going to be helpful at anything but close range.”

“So what’s the strategy, then?” Hypnos asked. “We’re losing on power, after all.”

“We do have four advantages,” Loki reassured us. “Number one is that we’ve got Newton with us now. That means that even without Referee, we outnumber them five to four.

“Number two is that the flag system benefits us, not them. We have Journey,” he said, gesturing to the buff woman, who flexed. “Who can instantly take any of us to the flag if it needs to be defended – even Sequoia.

“Number three is… Sequoia, bring that flag down here for me.”

The currently-wooden man tilted the flagpole so Loki could reach the flag. He pulled it off and handed it to Journey, then produced an illusion of the flag and hung that on the pole instead.

“Number three,” he said with a smirk, “is that we can obscure our flag much better than they can. In fact…” He created five more illusions of the flag and handed one to each of us – the actual flag, he tapped and turned invisible. “This way, they’ll have no idea where the flag is. Journey, I’ll have you hide the real one somewhere after the game starts.”

“This seems like cheating,” Sequoia observed.

“Nothing in the rules against it!” Loki said cheerfully. “If Canaveral didn’t want me exploiting the rules, he shouldn’t have added them.

“Then… why did Canaveral add in a flag at all?” I asked. “Seems like it really tilts the odds in our favor.”

He shook his head. “I’m sure he has a plan to protect it. Keeping it on his person, for example – getting it away from him, or from Vulcan for that matter, wouldn’t be easy. But we have a much better chance of being able to steal a flag than taking out four of the New Champions – honestly, I think we’d be lucky to take out half of them.”

“Can we go back to the earpieces thing?” Hypnos asked. “Are we going without coordination, or we going with you as our tactical lead?”

Loki grinned. “Neither!” he said. “I’ve been working on this spell for two and a half years, and it’s advantage number four…” He brought his hands together and they blurred as he began making complicated signs. His brow furrowed in concentration – this was by far the longest illusion I’d seen him create. About half a minute later, he had produced a faintly pulsing orb of green light. He then somehow divided it into five and handed us each one of the orbs, each about the size of a grape. It felt very odd to be holding something with no physical presence – there was only a faint vibration for physical feedback.

“What are these?” Journey asked, curiously.

“These are magical earpieces,” Loki told us all proudly. “They’re probably the single most complicated spell construct I’ve ever created – not visually, they’re invisible once applied…” He demonstrated by pressing the orb he still held to his jawline just below the ear, and it sank into his skin. “…but in terms of behavior.”

“How do they work?” I asked.

“Exactly like the standard technological ones, down to the speaking codes. ‘Broadcast’ at the start of a sentence sends your next words to everyone, or the name of a person – speaking of that, ‘Designate Self: Loki’ is how you set your name for the network – sends to that person. I finished that about six months ago, so I also had time to add a few extras features before I used them for the first time in this game – along with broadcasting to everyone or directly to one person, you can create smaller groups to communicate with, they’ll blur out your speech to anyone without one while you’re broadcasting… I even added a speaker function!” He pressed two fingers to his jawline below the ear and spoke. “It controls your volume according to the position of your pinky finger. Point it down and you’ll be quieter, point it up and you’ll get louder.” He waggled his pinky as he spoke to demonstrate.

“Loki, that’s very cool,” Journey said, applying her magical earpiece, “but we have a limited time here. What’s the gameplan? Designate Self: Journey,” she added.

“Journey, you’ll be transport,” Loki began. “Don’t worry about fighting, just stick with me except when I tell you to take someone somewhere. Hypnos, come here a sec.” Loki tapped Hypnos – who was still the only member of the Journeymen not to share his identity with me – and the young man faded from view, except for the still pulsing green light in his hand. A moment later it moved up to were his head must have been, and it too vanished. “I want to have you be our stealth. Get to the flag if you can, and slip away with it.”

“I can fight,” he promised. “I’ve been working on my martial skills a lot since last year, and there’s the new trick you helped me with…”

“I know you can, Hypnos,” Loki promised, “but I want to keep that as a last resort, just in case. Your stealth skills are great too, remember?

“Now then, Sequoia, Newton,” he said to me and the redheaded dryad, “you two are floating hunters. We’ll need to distract them from Hypnos, so Journey will be ferrying you around, dropping you into and pulling you out of battles at my direction. Take them out if you think you can, but the goal is to keep them occupied more than to actually beat them. Don’t take risks when you can keep drawing out the battle instead. Got it?”

“Got it,” I said, hesitantly. “I wish I had had time to train before this, though…”

“You’ll do fine,” Loki said, putting a comforting hand on my shoulder. “Just focus on the task in front of you.”

“What will you be doing?” I asked him.

“Me? I’m on overwatch. My powers will give me a picture of everything that’s going on, and I’ll direct you guys. Are we ready?”

 

Scene 8 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Simultaneous
Abraham Armstrong

 

“Alright everyone,” I said as we arrived at our starting area. “Not a ton has changed for us since last year – our capabilities are the same – but we now have an objective to protect. I want you, Vulcan, to be protecting our flag, and you, Starling, to seek theirs.”

“What about us?” Anima asked.

“You’re hunting, as usual,” I told her. She wasn’t often thought of as a combat type, her healing skills by far the most prominent to the public, but Anima was one of the best combatants on the team. Not only did she had the most experience out of any of us, her magical power was far more versatile than most thought. People saw her healing, or creating golems, and thought that that left her weak personally – but in fact, she could burn her store of lifeforce to temporarily enhance her physical capabilities to an incredible degree. “I’ll be floating around to try and keep an eye on everything, and assist as needed.

“Ben,” I asked, turning to Starling, who had started tapping away on his tech staff the moment we arrived, “how are you doing on the usual hack?”

“I should be in,” he said with a frown, “but none of their earpieces have been activated yet.”

“Hmm.” If they weren’t using the earpieces, that left them with only two options – either Holly was going to use her power over sound to keep the other Journeymen connected, or they were going without coordination at all. Which seemed incredibly unlikely, to me. The only way that could possibly go well was if they all stayed close together, perhaps playing a defensive game to try and knock a couple of us out when we went for the flag. But that seemed more likely to go badly – if we in turn joined forces against them, they would lose – particularly without an equalizer like Referee available to them.

“Holly is going to be coordinating them with her power,” I said aloud. “Miriam, you’re her magical tutor – how’s her multitasking? Could she be directing them as well as providing a comm network?”

“He,” Anima said sternly. “Loki’s in costume, that means it’s ‘he.’”

I blinked, then swore. I had known that kid for years, and still I fucked up on occasion. “Right, he. Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize to me, I’m not the one you misgendered.”

I sighed. “Point is, could he be doing that and still be an effective leader? He couldn’t, the year before last.”

She thought about it. “Not very well,” she said after a moment. “Keeping control of a system with five moving parts is complicated, and he’s mentioned to me before that connecting people like that really complex – at least as much as my golems, and even I struggle with controlling five at once. I think… I think he could keep them all connected,” she decided, “but nothing more. No leading, no other personally-guided illusions while he did that – only static ones.”

“Good news for us, then,” I said with a nod, “because without Holly as a leader, they don’t have any good tacticians – he’s by far their best.”

“You don’t see this going well for them, then?” Vulcan asked. “The Journeyman did win last year, you know.”

I waved a hand dismissively. “Not only did they have you on their side last year, but they also had Referee and Blue Phoenix. Their combat strength has gone down massively since then, and ours has gone up since you replaced the Warden. They can’t turtle up and fight us like that again.”

“If you say so,” he said, dubiously.

“It’ll be fine,” I promised. “And just to make sure… ice over that flag, will you?”

He raised an eyebrow. “That seems like cheating,” he pointed out, but he did reach up to snag the flag and began sucking the heat from it, ice quickly forming over the cloth and extending down the flagpole.

“Nothing in the rules against it!” I said cheerfully, as Vulcan continued to layer thick ice over the flag.

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2.1. Scene 5

Scene 5 – November 5th
Interior Conference Room, Morning
Quinn Kaufman

“Good morning!” bellowed a cheerful voice as its owner, a short man with olive-colored skin and a bright blue suit, entered the conference room where I sat. Director Shepard followed him, a laptop in one arm.

“Morning,” I yawned. “You must be the PR person?”

“Technically, I’m called a strategic consultant,” he told me, offering a hand to shake. “But yes, I’m basically the PR person for this region of the country – the whole east coast, in fact. Lucas Apollon.”

“Quinn Kaufman,” I said, shaking his hand.

“And, of course, you’ve already met Director Shepard, yes?”

She gave me a brief nod. “My presence here is just a formality, Mx. Kaufman, no need to worry. Mr. Apollon has my full confidence in these matters.”

“There have been, let’s say incidents, with consultants – one in particular, who I won’t give the respect of naming – designing overly revealing costumes and recommending inappropriate behaviors to new, inexperienced heroes,” Apollon explained. “Only one where they pressured the young hero into sexual acts, so far as we know, but after that abuse of power came to light it was made policy for the local director or their deputy to observe these meetings.”

“And as Mr. Apollon is completely asexual, you have no need to worry about that,” the director said, paying more attention to her laptop. “Officially, the reason is to support you against the strategic consultant if you butt heads, but again, he has my full confidence. I’m certain you two can compromise if necessary without me needing to weigh in.”

I nodded in understanding, then turned to Apollon. “So how does this work?”

“This is essentially your first go at creating a heroic persona,” he told me. “It’s not necessarily a permanent decision – it’s not easy to rebrand, but it can be done if necessary, and graduating from a junior team to a full agent always comes with a meeting to see if it is. But for at least the next six months, yes, this is the person you’re going to be to the public.”

“What do you mean by heroic persona?”

“Essentially, we encourage heroic agents to create a sort of persona for themselves in costume,” he explained. “It’s part of why they wear costumes at all, really. Because there’s been a long-standing tradition of costumed heroes since well before the government began regulating the practice, the public tends to trust people with a heroic persona better – a character and costume rather than an anonymous face in a uniform. The MLED wants you to have a simple, consistent face that the public can understand and trust.”

“And sell merchandise for?” I asked, my eyes flicking down to the Vulcan-branded shirt I was currently wearing.

“And sell merchandise for, yes,” Apollon agreed. “Any source of fundraising means less of a drain on the taxpayers – and some of that goes into your pocket as well.”

“So what kind of persona do you recommend for me? I assume you have some kind of file that tells you all about me.”

“I do have a file,” he admitted, opening a briefcase and setting it on the table. “But market research on what the public responds best to isn’t actually all that helpful here.”

“No?”

“No. It’s not just about what the public likes, it’s what you can convey,” he explained. “The public’s favorite heroes are inspiring tanks – people who they can look up to and believe will always be there, people who can’t get hurt.”

“Aegis,” I said.

“Aegis foremost among them, yes. But not everyone can pull off inspiring, and not everyone can pull off tank. It needs to be something that they can believe from you – heroes seen as inauthentic are not well-liked, regardless of how effective they are.”

“So…”

“So let’s go over the different kinds of heroes,” he said, “and you tell me what type of persona you think you can pull of.

“Now, I typically divide heroes into one of four types,” he said, showing me a graph with the logos of eight different heroes plotted across it. “Two axes, as you see – you can be leaning towards two of the types, but it tends to be better to focus on one.

Hero Type Chart

“First up is Inspiring.” He tapped on the shield logo that represented Aegis. “Aegis, as I mentioned, is the preeminent example of this type of hero in the world – here in New Venice, we have Canaveral. Inspiring heroes are the ones who make people feel safe, who make them want to be better people. They’re often the favorite heroes of children. It requires a lot of charisma to pull of,” he warned me, “as it involves being a public figure. Expect speeches, appearances on talk shows, and similar events. Also expect a cape. Capes are almost mandatory for these heroes.

“On the other end of this axis is the Approachable. These are heroes that ordinary people can relate to in a way that they can’t, with the Inspiring. Inspiring heroes are people you look up to, but Approachable heroes are ones you can ask for help.” He pointed to the logos closest to that side of the graph. “Anima here in New Venice, or Omnipresence on the national level, are approachable heroes. Their costumes tend to be simpler, closer to normal clothes – although not actually normal clothes – and it involves more 1-on-1 time than Inspiring heroes have. Expect events more along the lines of visiting hospitals and local schools, and speaking with visitors taking tours of the Compound.”

“So the Inspiring have to be comfortable speaking with crowds, but don’t necessarily need people skills for interacting with individuals,” I guessed, “while the Approachable are the opposite?”

“Exactly. Consider it a charisma axis – do you relate better to individuals are small groups, or to large groups?”

“And Canaveral is Inspiring, not Approachable? I would have guessed the opposite, from my interactions with him.”

Apollon nodded. “He’s not very far towards the inspiring end of things, as you can see, because he likes to mix in being approachable on a personal level as well – particularly when speaking with young heroes. In his consultation when he first joined he wanted to be seen as an attainable ideal, something that people could imagine matching up to, rather than being something you can never reach, like Aegis. Adding in that approachable nature makes it easier to see him as a person, and that makes it more possible to reach for that ideal.”

He moved on before I could reply. “Next we have the axis of skill – practical vs academic. Practical heroes are the ones who have a reputation for getting the job done, no matter what. We don’t say ruthless,” he cautioned me, “that doesn’t poll well. ‘Reliable’ is a better word. Heroes who don’t necessarily have people skills, but who do have heroing skills.” The logos here were for Vulcan and Nanoblade, a nationally-famous hero who worked primarily on the west coast. “Their costumes err on the side of practicality, and sometimes barely resemble costumes at all.

“Finally, we come to Academic heroes,” Apollon said, tapping on the logos of Starling and Arthur Peregrine. “These are the heroes who’re trusted to be knowledgeable, to know what needs to be done. It requires you to have deep knowledge about a topic, whether that be in technology like New Venice’s Starling, or in magic like Arthur Peregrine – although he’s not actually a heroic agent, just a consultant – and to be trusted to have broader, shallower knowledge about a great many things beside.”

“Why is it always fours?” I asked as he paused.

“What do you mean?”

“Power classification is four keywords, three of them having four set options. There are four possible threat levels for a metahuman. Four types of heroes. Hell, I’m surprised there are only three types of powers!” I joked.

“Actually, for the purpose of classifying metahumans, the DMO uses four,” Director Shepard absently commented.

“What?” I asked. “Natural, magical, cosmic… what’s the fourth?”

“Magical is divided into narrow magic and broad magic,” Apollon clarified.

“Narrow mages like Canaveral and Anima don’t diversify, they specialize,” Shepard explained, glancing up from her work. “They may come up with new tricks, but those tricks will all fall under the same category – kinetic energy, for Canaveral, or zoetic for Anima. Broad mages like Loki or Arthur Peregrine, however, try to spread their magical talents as well, and can come up with entirely new abilities. They may have one particular specialty above all others, but they they don’t restrict themselves to it.”

“For example, the first time I had one of this consultations with Loki, he couldn’t control sound – now he can not only do that, he’s working on temperature as well.” Apollon said. “That was… what, five years ago?”

“Six,” the director corrected. “Broad mages are more versatile, but they won’t match up to a narrow mage in their particular area of expertise.” She paused, then added, “Arthur Peregrine is probably an exception to that. After two centuries, his skill is likely similar to that of a narrow mage in most topics, particularly healing.

“Anyway,” he said, waving a hand as if to dismiss the topic, “back to hero types. You will probably be unsurprised to learn that the second category has, you guessed it, four subtypes.”

“Of course,” I sighed. “Let me here them.”

“The last graph can be thought of as character types,” he told me, “but these are more like character roles. Have you ever played Dungeons and Dragons, or an MMO?”

“Not for a few years…” not since I had lost most of my friends in high school…

I felt myself drifting back into the grayness and, with some effort, stopped myself. “…but yes,” I finished.

Fortunately, Apollon didn’t seem to notice, or at least to care, about the too-long pause. “Think of it like party composition. You want to have at least one of these for every team of heroes. And rather than being about the personality you present, these are about the skills you bring to the table.

“First, of course, is the leader. They’re in charge, and guide the team’s actions when they need to work together. Canaveral is the leader of the New Champions, but of our national examples, it’s actually Omnipresence is the one who takes this role, not Aegis.”

“And it’s leadership skills that you need, I assume?”

He nodded. “Yes. A power that helps you coordinate with people helps, of course – Omnipresence’s teleportation is part of why he’s so effective as a leader – but your tactical skills are what really makes this role. There are leadership courses provided to help you prepare for this role and keep your skills sharp, if you take it.

“Next up is support. Here in New Venice you have Anima – she can heal, and provide boosts to your abilities as well. Nationally, Peregrine can do… well, nearly anything,” he said. “These aren’t front-line fighters, for the most part, but they still have a valuable contribution. Being in a supportive role in the field often ends up with you providing emotional support as well, so basic therapy training courses usually go along with this as well.

“Third is tank, which I think I mentioned earlier.”

I nodded. “Aegis.”

“Aegis indeed,” he agreed. “These are the heroes who can take a lot of damage – the ones who protect their teammates. It requires some level of invulnerability, but you don’t have to be as absolutely indestructible as Aegis for this – Vulcan does just fine. Now, can you guess what the last role is?” he asked.

“Striker,” I said, confidently. “A damage-dealer.”

“Good guess, and you’d be right if this was D&D,” he said, “but no. Remember that half of these roles is how you appear to the public – having a role specifically about how much damage you can deal doesn’t play well in the public perception. Those who would be categorized as strikers do often fall into this role,” he admitted, “but a lot of heavy hitters are tanks as well. Care to take another guess?”

I thought about it, but after a while shook my head. The only other thing I could think of was healer, but he had already placed Anima as support.

“Last is a swing role,” Apollon told me. “Jacks-of-all-trades – heroes who can do a little bit of everything. Damage-dealing sometimes falls to them, but mostly they need to be there as back-up. The New Champions have Starling for this role, and Nanoblade is a national example.”

“Got it,” I said, leaning back in my chair to think. Where would I fit in?

“Time for a pop quiz!” he said gleefully, and I groaned. “You probably noticed that I used four members of the New Champions in my examples – Canaveral is an Inspiring Leader, Anima is an Approachable Support, Vulcan is a Practical Tank, and Starling is an Academic Swing. But!” He grinned. “There are five members of the New Champions.”

I blinked. “You didn’t mention Zookeeper at all!” I realized.

“Or the Journeymen, for that matter,” he agreed. “So, here’s your quiz. Tell me what you think their roles are – keeping in mind that, while we try to shuffle adult heroes around to get at least one of each type on each team, junior heroes get to stay where they signed up until they graduate.”

I sighed. “Okay… Zookeeper, from what I’ve seen, is pretty approachable – very personable. And… I’m guessing she’s a swing? Maybe support, but…”

“Exactly right,” he said approvingly. “Next?”

I drummed my fingers on the table, thinking. “Loki is an Academic Leader.”

“Not quite, I’m afraid. He was cast as Support.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Really? I know he’s taking leadership courses, and is the leader of the Journeymen to boot.”

“That’s a recent development,” he told me. “Just in the last few years. He’ll probably rebrand as a hero when he graduates, but at present he’s still officially listed as Support.”

“Hm.” Perhaps that explained how Holly seemed to know exactly what to do and say to help me when I was consumed by my grief – she had no doubt taken courses on how to do exactly that. “Well… Simone is Approachable Support, I think.”

“Correct.”

“Hypnos is… Practical Support? I don’t think he ever really does PR stuff…”

Apollon shrugged. “Not to my knowledge, no – he declined that part of being a junior hero. He doesn’t actually have a designation as a result. Bit of a trick question, I suppose, for which I should apologize. That is where I’d place him, though, yes.”

“Sequoia… Practical Tank? I’m just guessing now, I barely know him or Referee. Or Hypnos, for that matter.”

“He’s hoping to become an Inspiring Tank, actually,” Apollon corrected. “Still learning public speaking skills.”

“Referee is… hmm. She’s too shy to fall on the charisma axis, so… I guess practical support?”

“Right. Notice anything?”

“We’re missing some roles,” I said. “We have four supports – three if you count Loki as a leader instead – and no swings. Only one tank, too. Character-wise we’re leaning towards approachable and practical.”

He nodded. “Like I said, junior teams like the Journeymen aren’t required to be balanced like the adult teams are. So, do you have any thoughts on where you could fit in?”

I was surprised to realize that I did. “Approachable Swing,” I said immediately. “I could maybe pull off Academic, but I don’t know that I actually have enough education for that yet, really. And none of the other roles fits me exactly.”

The strategist showed me a page from his briefcase with my name on it – neatly penciled-in notes read ‘appr? aca? def swing, unless dr focus’. “My thoughts exactly. You’re a pleasure to work with, Mx. Kaufman.”

“Thanks.”

“Now that that’s set,” he said, crossing out the ‘aca’ on my file and checking off ‘appr’ and ‘swing’, “let’s talk costumes. I understand you’re making things easy for me there by providing your own?”

I nodded. “It helps me deal with the backlash of my powers, so… doesn’t seem like I should move away from it.”

“I would agree. But looking at the photos of it, I think you could stand to add an accessory or two. You were wearing a plaid shirt with it the night you met Canaveral, yes?”

“Yeah.”

“If you were leaning towards Academic, I might have suggested a change,” he told me. “Something like a cloak, longcoat, or shouldercape would have worked well for that – or a doctor’s coat if you were going to focus on a medic role and be Support. The plaid shirt, however, is perfect for an Approachable hero.”

“I bought a bunch more from a thrift shop already,” I offered.

“No need to worry about that. Maintaining your costume is the MLED’s responsibility. Besides, there will need to be a standard design for your shirts.”

“…does there have to be? I’ve always liked having lots of different plaids.”

He took a breath, considering. “No, it doesn’t have to be,” he decided after a few moments. “But they do all have to be color-coordinated with your suit.” He glanced down at a photo attached to my file. “I would say mostly in cool colors.” He squinted. “Perhaps some warm to bring out the purple of your costume, but mostly blues as the primary color. And…” he grinned. “Actually, yes, this is perfect! You can have a large stock of them, and when you’re out on patrol, you can give them out to people you help. Like shock blankets.”

“Would that… help?” I asked. “I guess I don’t know how shock blankets work, exactly, but…”

He waved his hand dismissively again. “Sure it will, shock blankets are all psychological anyway. And it’ll go over great. Perfect for an Approachable hero.”

“If you’re sure,” I said, not entirely sure myself.

“I am.” He glanced over my file once more. “Alright, last thing on the agenda here is your name. I see you picked ‘Newton’?”

“I’m not married to it,” I told him. “I just picked it because I needed to tell Canaveral something.”

He nodded. “Good, because it has to go.”

I blinked. “It’s that bad?

“It’s not bad per se,” he said, “but it does lean heavily towards the Academic. You probably want something a little less associated with science. I have some suggestions, if you don’t have any ideas.”

“Hit me,” I said.

“Mythological names are always popular,” he noted. “As a prominent power of yours is ESP… Apollo, god of prophecy and divination.”

“I can’t actually see the future,” I denied. “And he’s pretty strongly associated with the sun, which has little to do with me.”

“Metis, titan of wisdom and foresight.”

I paused. “Maybe come back to that one?”

“Cassandra, prophetess of Troy.”

“Who no one ever believed. Next.”

“Telemus, another seer.”

“Why are you so set on seers?”

“Another mythology then,” he offered. “Heimdal could see everything in all the nine realms.”

“Come back to that. Next.”

“Norn, the-”

“Seers again!” I protested.

“What would you prefer?”

“If we’re stuck with mythological figures, can we at least look at Jewish figures?” I asked him. “Seeing as I’m Jewish?”

He sighed, and went farther down his page. “Let’s see here… Uriel, an archangel associated with teaching?”

“…maybe.”

“Abuyah, from Elisha ben Abuyah.”

“You must be joking.”

He growled. “Eleazar, from one of the lost tribes.”

“Hm… come back to it.”

“No other good Jewish names,” he insisted.

“Metis, Heimhal, Uriel, Eleazar…” I mused. “None of them feel right.”

“Not mythological then,” Apollon sighed. “I take it back, you’re not a pleasure to work with.” I felt a pang of guilt for a moment before I noticed the faint smile that belied his protest. “Alright, what else do I have… ah-ha!

“Classic heroic names were often just two words combined, or even a single word that seemed to fit,” he told me. “The Doorman, Redeye, and so on. Now, I’ve cut out the blank-man and blank-woman names…”

“I appreciate it.”

…but that still gives us quite a lot of possibilities.”

“How about just the top five to start?” I asked.

He read them out all at once. “Mindweb, Everpresent, Sideminder, Telepresence, or Undermind.”

“Those are all…” I paused. “Actually, Sideminder isn’t bad,” I admitted. “But I don’t have a snake theme at all, so the sidewinder pun is lost.”

“Starling doesn’t have much of a bird theme,” Apollon tried.

“He at least flies.”

“We could add an accessory.” But I shook my head, and he sighed. “What do you want, then? Do you have any alternate ideas?”

“Not… really,” I admitted. “I just know that I don’t like any of those.” Picking my new name when I came out had been easier than this – the first name that I tried had stuck.

“Just let them stay as Newton,” Shepard said with a groan. “They’ll be leaning Academic anyway, remember?”

“Fine.” Apollon stood. “You  have up until you’re presented to the public on the 14th to change your mind.” He swept out of the room in a way that made me certain he expected me to. “I’ll make the arrangements!” his voice echoed back down the hall.”

“I don’t think I will,” I confessed to Shepard as she closed her laptop and stood.

She shrugged. “As long as it checks out with Legal, I don’t particularly care.”

I watched her leave, not looking behind her, and sighed. I supposed I couldn’t expect everyone to be as supportive as Abe and Holly were, but it still stung.

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2.1. Scenes 1-4

Scene 1 – November 1st
Interior Guest Room, Late Morning
Quinn Kaufman

I didn’t sleep much – or if I did, it wasn’t very restful. I didn’t toss and turn, just lay and space out. My mind was lost in a sea of fog, a wall of grief blotting me out from feeling… anything.

Ironic that my thoughts are becoming so poetic now, after my father died.

Eventually, I stopped staring at the wall and rose. It was at that point that I realized I wasn’t sure where I was.

Most of the previous night was a blur – I could only remember bits and pieces. I thought I remembered Devon saying something about calling Holly? She couldn’t have taken me home, since she had never been to my house, but I did remember the revelation that she lived in a mansion. Maybe there was a spare room – that she had stashed me? I wondered what her parents thought of…

I came back to myself after what I hoped was only a few moments. It seemed unlikely, I decided, that I was in Holly’s mansion. The room was rather bare and spartan, and I doubted that people as rich as that were particularly minimalist. So where was I, then?

My ESP might not be have been able to see through walls like Hypnos’ sensory projection could, but I could still get quite a bit of information if I tried. I took a deep breath, bracing myself for the slight headache that had come along with this when I had done it in the past, and shifted the ESP to plug into my hearing rather than my proprioception.

Instantly, I could hear everything – everything that caused even the slightest vibration of anything in the small room I had woken in. It wasn’t as great a magnification to my senses as I had experienced in the junkyard, since my presence filled only the room I was in instead of a radius of several city blocks, but it was enough to tell me where I was.

Judging from the low, near-constant rumbling of voices and feet shuffling in all directions, I was in a crowded building. Judging from the faint hum of plasma, I was in one of the few buildings in New Venice that was powered by an internal plasma generator – mostly corporate or governmental buildings. And judging by the murmur of conversation I could hear a few rooms away, I was in a building in Holly and Abe. All that added up to tell me that I was in the MLED Compound – presumably in one of the spare rooms.

Scene 2 – November 1st
Interior MLED Compound, Continuous
Quinn Kaufmann

I stumbled into the common room a few minutes later, finding Holly and Abe both there along with Simone, who was dozing quietly as she lay across one couch.

No, not quietly, I corrected myself as she let out what was obviously a snore, but in eerie silence. Holly had just magically silenced her snoring.

“Quinn!” the illusionist cried as I entered. “You’re awake!”

“Yeah,” I said, finding a chair and collapsing into it. “I guess I am.”

“Are you alright, kid?” Abe asked. He was wearing Canaveral’s white jumpsuit but had the cowl down, as it seemed he often did in the Compound. “Holly told me what happened…”

“…Quinn? Quinn!” Abe snapped his fingers in front of my face again. “Come back to us, kid!”

“Sorry,” I said, blinking as the world came back into focus. “I spaced out a bit there, I guess…”

Abe stood up straight again and exchanged a worried look with Holly, then said, “Holly and Simone brought you back to the Compound after the doctor called them. They didn’t think you should be alone right now, and I have to agree.”

I nodded. “Yeah, that… thank you,” I said to Holly.

“It was the least I could do,” she said quietly. She clearly hadn’t gone home – she was still wearing the same sweater from last night. Simone, however, had at some point changed out of her costume into something more casual.

“Do you know what you’re going to do next?” Abe said, seeming to choose his words carefully.

“I… I’m going to have to find where dad left his will, I suppose,” I said. “He knew this was coming, so he’ll probably have left something somewhere. And then… I’m going to join the Journeymen. If you’re still have me.”

They exchanged another look. “Are you sure?” Abe asked. “You shouldn’t make any snap decisions.”

“I’m sure,” I said. “I promised…”

“…well, if you’re sure,” Abe was saying. That time, I thought, had only been a few seconds.

“They’re sure,” Holly said firmly. “And…” She trailed off, then glanced at Canaveral and said something that failed to enter my ears.

“Please don’t talk behind my back – not right in front of me, at least,” I said. “I’m not going to shatter if I hear something bad right now.”

“Really? Because you look like a wet paper towel right now. We just don’t want to hurt you more.”

“I’m already broken,” I said. “How much more damage can you do?”

Holly sighed. “I was just saying that even if you’re only joining to get a little support, that might actually be the best thing for you right now.”

I nodded. “You’re… not wrong,” I said. “Either about that being part of the reason – although not the whole – and… about me needing it. I…”

I felt myself begin to cry only when the first drop fell from my chin to my lap. “I’m sorry,” I gasped. “I don’t know what…”

“It’s okay, Quinn,” Holly said, sitting next to me. “We’re happy to give you the support you need.”

I didn’t deserve this kind of care, I knew. I had done nothing to earn this. But I couldn’t bring myself to protest.

Holly was incredible. But I couldn’t… whatever I had promised my dad when he lay there dying, I…

…I couldn’t inflict myself on her. Not now.

Scene 3 – November 5th
Interior Testing Facility, Early Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

For days, I had just… drifted.

Dad’s will had been emailed to me on the night of the 31st, timestamped at around the time I had met Holly and Simone for the party – it seemed he had sent it to me after Doctor Yaffe had told him it was time. I spent most of the 1st and 2nd arranging his funeral – he had set some money aside for it, and specified exactly what he wanted in the message.

Going through the funeral had helped – seeing how many people were there, either to pay their respects to my father or to support me, as Holly had promised to do, had meant a lot, even though I had had difficulty feeling it at the time – as had spending the entirety of the 3rd sleeping.

The 4th had been filled with legalities and phone calls and emails – there was a lot of paperwork to go through to register myself with the DMO and to join the Journeymen – or rather, I had learned, ‘the New Venice MLED Junior Heroic Agent team’. No wonder MLED-sponsored teams got nicknames – it was for simplicity as well as to match the tradition of superheroic teams that had existed since before the DMO was founded, and which still existed today in some cities.

Plus I had had to call the college and let them know why I was going to be missing a week of school. That conversation hadn’t been pleasant. They already knew that dad was dead, of course – I supposed he must have had a message set up to go to them as well – so it was a lot of awkwardness as they tiptoed around the subject and I, still largely enfolded in grayness even though I was trying to push through, simply barreled through it like a bull in a china shop.

I was still staying at the Compound. I… hadn’t been back home yet. The thought hurt too much to even consider. I knew I would have to go eventually – if only to pack up my essentials and get clothes and toiletries of my own instead of the stuff I had bought from the gift shop, all branded and themed after various MLED heroes – and Holly had volunteered to accompany me, but… for now, it was enough, and I could continue avoiding it.

Today, having finished the paperwork shortly before lunch, it was time to go through powers testing. I had messaged Simone to ask her to pick up the PA4 from home, and was waiting for her – or for the power testers, whoever arrived first – in a large, gym-like room.

As no one seemed to be coming, however, I closed my eyes, and just… waited.

Scene 4 – November 5th
Interior Testing Facility, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

Eventually, I heard a polite clearing of the throat, and opened my eyes to see two people in front of me – a muscular black man not much taller than me in a skintight suit cut in a similar style to the PA4, and a taller, somewhat lighter-skinned black woman with braided hair, a lab coat, and a clipboard.

“Miss…” she glanced at her clipboard. “Sorry, Mx. Kaufman? Is that right?”

I nodded, standing. “Yes. I’m nonbinary, I use they/them pronouns, so… Mx.”

“I’ll do my best,” she said – she seemed to have a bit of an accent – Italian? I supposed that New Venice had a substantial Italian population – perhaps she was biracial. “You’re the first person I’ve met who uses they/them, so I can’t promise perfection, but…”

“If you’re making an effort, that’s all I can ask,” I assured her.

“So, Mx. Kaufman. I’m Dr. Anomnachi, a specialist in metahuman research,” she said, offering a hand, “but you can call me Isabella, or even just Belle if you prefer. I don’t tend to stand on ceremony.” Italian first name, and what I thought was a nigerian last name – that supported the biracial theory. She jerked a thumb at the superhero next to her. “This is Starling.”

“Quinn,” I told her, shaking her hand. “I don’t either. I barely recognized you without the cape,” I said to Starling, offering him my hand. He scowled as he shook it, but didn’t say anything.

“He’s grouchy because his cape is malfunctioning – it helps him fly – and he’s not terribly friendly at the best of times,” Belle said. “Don’t take it personally.”

I nodded. “Alright. You’re here to test my powers, then?”

“Mhm,” she hummed, glancing over the clipboard again. “I work with the DMO a lot to run these powers tests, but you probably won’t see much of me unless you’re acting as a safety officer for a test – that’s what Starling is here for.”

He grunted, taking a seat on the bench I had vacated. “You’d better not actually need me, I’m trying to figure out what went wrong with the cape.” He removed a short baton from his belt – his vaunted tech-staff, a thousand different tools all in one gadget – extended what appeared to be a holographic screen from it to turn it into a tablet, and began examining a set of blueprints.

“Once I’m done, you’ll have more contact with Dr. Rogers – he’s the lead physician for New Venice’s MLED agents,” she continued. “Now, introductions over – let’s get started, shall we?”

I allowed the testing to blur by, for the most part. Dr. Anomnachi may not have stood on ceremony, but she didn’t mess around when it came to her work. She briskly ran me through a series of tests to check if I had beyond-human abilities in any way other than the ones I had noticed – from strength to toughness to speed.

None of them turned up anything, unsurprisingly. I didn’t seem to have any powers other than the two I had discovered on my own. The testing for those powers, though, did bring me out of my funk and back into the present.

“I see you reported a sort of radial ESP,” Belle said, tapping her clipboard. “Tell me more about that.”

“Extending in all directions from me, there’s an area in which I have massively enhanced sensory input,” I said. “It plugs into my proprioception by default, letting me feel and understand the location, shape, and momentum of everything in my radius, but I can shift it to other senses if I try. Doing that inhibits all other senses to almost nothing, though, while using it with proprioception doesn’t.”

She made a few notes. “Perhaps you’re directing all your senses into just one, not the ESP alone. Might be worth experimenting with. What is it like for other senses?”

“Vision lets me see everything within the radius, which… doesn’t seem super useful, to be honest. Seeing in, effectively, all directions is cool,” I said, nodding to Starling – omnidirectional sight was one of the many enhanced senses that he had, “but it doesn’t tell me much that the proprioception doesn’t except for color. Audio gives me something approaching echolocation, because with such a wide area to pickup sounds from, I can hear things that are much fainter, and to a greater fidelity.”

“Interesting.” She frowned at the board for a moment, then stared at me as though I was a puzzle. “And your telekinesis operates only on the same radius?”

“As far as I’ve observed, yes. If it’s not in my ESP, I can’t affect it.”

“Hmm. Why do you call it radial ESP?”

“Isn’t all this on your board already?” I asked.

“The board has only the most basic information,” she said. “Even if it didn’t, I prefer hearing from the person themself – themselves? Well, whichever. It tells me what it’s like for you, which I find more helpful in these tests than interpreting what some clerk thought you meant.”

“Makes sense,” I agreed. “I call it radial because it seems to extend outward from me as though I’m radiating it. The farther something is from me, the more faintly I can sense it, and if there’s something behind what I’m sensing, I can’t feel that at all.”

“Hmm… I have some ideas for tests.”

She had lots of ideas for tests. After confirming that the ESP was present, and that it was fine enough at close range to let me operate completely blindfolded without difficulty, she began testing the limitations of it.

A closed window confirmed that it was stopped by any solid object, not just visible ones.

An open window and a few buildings used as benchmarks gave me a rough idea of my effective range – just under 100 feet for anything fine, slightly under 500 for mid-sized objects like people or cars, and a bit less than 2500 for large objects like buildings.

A fine metal grate told me that objects which weren’t solid didn’t actually stop my ESP, but they could break it up and reduce the fidelity of my perception – things behind the grate were significantly fainter to my ESP. As the grate came closer to me or farther from whatever was behind it, though, the obscured objects came into greater relief.

Rolling up my sleeves and tying my shirt up a little (and probably wrinkling the Anima-branded heart logo that adorned it) confirmed that whatever force my ESP worked on was either emanating from or being picked up me all of me, every bit of my skin. The clothes I wore, being permeable fabric, didn’t stop it completely, just as the grate did. And, just like the grate, they were very close to me, meaning that my senses weren’t affected much – but enough that showing a bit more skin sharpened them.

After testing the ESP, we moved on to the telekinesis. The doctor seemed very curious about the fact that it affected me as well as my target. “It suggests that it’s anchored to you in some way, in a way that no other telekinetic I’ve ever heard of is,” she told me. “Even those who can affect their own body are physically lifting themselves, rather than pushing off of something else.”

It wasn’t hard to confirm for her that the TK was blocked by the same things that blocked the ESP. What was more interesting to me was that it seemed to be weakened in the same ways as well.

She had me exert a constant force on a scale, then moved the grate around in between me and the scale. She had me physically step closer to or farther away from it, as well, and from this concluded that the force was weakening in similar fashion, and at the same rate, as the ESP.

She had me lifting weights, to try and find the limit of my telekinetic force. After we had found my limits outside of the suit, she said, we would try with it on – Simone had apparently dropped the PA4 off and left again, not having time to stay and chat today. I warned her that my limit had seemed to be above what my body could handle in backlash, and she promised to keep an eye on it.

I was embarrassingly weak, as it turned out. I could comfortably exert only about 100 pounds of force (translating into pounds from, what else, newtons) before my knees started to give out. After a suggestion from Dr. Anomnachi, I tried pushing against the ground as well, to transfer the force through me – this helped, bringing my telekinetic strength up to 500 pounds (and a feeling like I was being squished), which was a little more useful, at least. 100 pounds of force wouldn’t do much for a superhero, however useful it could be in everyday life.

Changing into the PA4 definitely helped – by a whole order of magnitude. I was comfortably lifting 1000 pounds, 5000 while bracing myself. A quick check through the window confirmed that the expansion of my presence had gotten a similar enhancement – I was sensing at 1000 feet, one mile, and five miles.

There were no real surprises, and in the end I was classified just as I had expected to be – Self Buff 1 (Sensory) and Area Control 2 (Telekinetic*). Even if it wasn’t quite accurate, Dr. Anomnachi explained, it was better to give the rough idea and leave the details in the footnote, for these ratings.

“I think,” she said, looking over my results after I had changed back into normal clothes, “that your ESP and TK are actually just aspects of the same power.”

“Because what I can feel with one, I can impact with the other?”

“I think it’s the opposite, actually. You’re getting feedback from the TK.”

I thought about that. “Like… what, like I have lots of tiny invisible arms holding onto things?”

“More like… well, like you’re radiating yourself,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not a magical specialist,” she cautioned, “but I know a little. And it seems a bit like you’re emitting some sort of magical energy which is, in some way, yourself. Your soul, perhaps, or maybe your mind, in a psychic sense. What it touches becomes part of you, for some purposes. You’re feeling with your proprioception because that’s the sense that tells you where parts of your own body are.”

“Hmm… that would explain why I get telekinetic backlash,” I tentatively agreed. “It’s just like pushing against a wall with my own arm.”

“Exactly.” She tapped her chin thoughtfully. “A better name than ESP and telekinesis, since your powerset doesn’t quite seem to fit the standard forms of those, might be… presence. You radiate your presence, you can exert a force of presence, and where you’re present, you’re aware.”

“More poetic, certainly,” I commented. “Which I like. Instead of ESP, it’s… what, the sense of my presence? And a force of personality?”

She smiled. “Yes, I like that. A force of personality, and a sense of your presence. Your presence fills a room.”

“Like a bad smell.”

She laughed. “Alright, enough poetry and useless theorizing,” she said, tapping her clipboard. “I’m not here to figure out the mechanics behind your power, as much as I’d like to – I have another appointment to get to in…” She glanced at her watch and sighed. “Five minutes ago.” The doctor gave me a nod. “Pleasure meeting you, Mx. Kaufman.

“You’re done for today, Miss Kaufman,” Starling said, standing from the bench where I had nearly forgotten he was, and I glowered at him for what had to have been a deliberate misgendering. “Don’t forget your meeting with PR tomorrow morning, but for now you can go.” He strode out of the room, still engrossed in the designs on his tablet.

Right… PR tomorrow for costuming and presentation. But the day after that…

Paintball.

Intermission | Act 1 | Next Chapter

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2. Act 1: At Your Beginnings

Risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings

-Rudyard Kipling, 1895

Scenes 1-4, Scene 5

Scenes 6-8, Scenes 9-12, Scenes 13-15, Scenes 16-18

Scenes 19-21, Scenes 22-24

Intermission

Dramatis Personae

Principal Characters

Abraham Armstrong, the superhero Canaveral, who commands kinetic energy. (he/him)
Holly Koval, the young superhero Loki, who creates illusions. (she/her and he/him)
Quinn Kaufman, the young superhero Newton, who has telekinetic and extrasensory abilities. (they/them)

A Heroic Assembly

Adam Abelard, the superhero Vulcan, who transforms into metal to create both ice and fire. (he/him)
Benjamin Brant, the superhero Starling, who can fly for brief moments and creates incredible technology. (he/him)
Niccolo Mellas, the young superhero Hypnos, who can project his senses at a distance. (he/him)
Simone Destrey, the young superheroine Journey, who can teleport. (she/her)
Jack Forester, the young superhero Sequoia and Niccolo’s boyfriend, who transforms into wood. (he/him)
Miriam Wright, the superheroine Anima, who commands the energy of life. (she/her)

A Conglomerate of Civilians

Jacob Ryder, a talk show host. (he/him)
Lucas Apollon, a strategic and public relations consultant. (he/him)
Susan Shepard, the local director of the Metahuman Law Enforcement Division, or MLED. (she/her)

An Unknown Party

Dominic Könberg, a young man. (he/him)
Jennifer Könberg, one of Dominic’s mothers. (she/her)
Morgan Könberg, one of Dominic’s mothers and a skilled artificer. (she/her)
Percival Könberg, Dominic’s younger brother. (he/him)
Tristan Könberg, Dominic’s youngest brother. (he/him)
Vivian Könberg, Dominic’s twin sister and a magician-in-training. (she/her)

Intermission | Book 2 | Next Chapter

If you enjoy my writing, please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. If you can’t afford a recurring donation, you can make an individual donation through Paypal, or purchase one of my books. You can even support me for free by voting for Paternum on TopWebFiction every week. The more I make from my writing, the more time I can devote to it, which will improve both the quantity and quality of my work.