Contract – Real Time Cash Flows

We need to shut Nevermore down, now. Wait, of course they couldn’t hear that. It’s always fun trying to talk like normal when you don’t have a mouth. Or lungs. Nomad flowed forward, engulfing another Bratva soldier and slamming him against the wall. Nomad flowed off, taking the man’s gun with him and chucking it behind him, out of the construction site. Blackout and Whiteout followed behind him. I would tell them what to do, but I can’t talk right now. Several bullets hit liqui-Nomad, entering with a quiet plop and coming to a stop about a foot in. Never mind, I take back every complaint about my power.

“Right side, right side!” yelled out Whiteout. Blackout turned and began firing in that direction, giving the three Bratva a pause for thought.

Nomad snagged two nearby Bratva. He ignored the incessant sourceless whispering, the dim, flickering lights, and the fact that gravity oscillated in strength in certain places he spread out over. The gravity part is incredibly annoying, actually. Everything moved in almost slow motion. He pummeled one man (he could exert force within himself just as easily as outside), the other’s arm he twisted until something went pop.

The Undead had panicked once the attack began. Some thought the Bratva betrayed them, and proceeded to make Nomad and his group’s job much easier. Others ran directly into Gears and Miya. Rob didn’t bother with hostages or hand to hand combat, and Miya’s golem had a similar lack of remorse. The more dead Undead, the more likely they are to break up. Whatever helps me sleep at night. Olivia crushed one of the Undead’s cars as she came in.

The remaining six or so Bratva around Nomad’s group began to rally. The rest were either down or fleeing with their leader guy. These were Russian immigrants, some of them no doubt ex-military. Nomad would be surprised if at least one of them hadn’t served in Siberia or Afghanistan. Two took cover behind a concrete barrier and forced Whiteout to Nomad’s left to duck behind a concrete support column. The hail of bullets would overwhelm his shield rapidly, and then move on to his vital organs. Damn semi-auto weapons, and damn the competent people using them. Blackout actually had the advantage here, his shield kept them from shooting him with anything resembling accuracy, and bullets would not break it and force him to take the time and effort to reform it.

Nomad flowed and washed over them, one managing to dodge out of the way in time. Hey, there’s a grenade on one of them. He pulled the pin and flowed away as fast as possible. He joined Whiteout by the large support column, expelled the random bullets and dirt from himself, and reformed into his normal self. It took him a long moment to feel his hands and feet again. Hate that feeling. Nervous system doesn’t reform quite as fast, and it only gets worse the longer I stay a liquid. He heard the grenade explode behind him, accompanied by some screams as men died. Jesus, did that happen right next to me? That was extremely loud.

“We’re good, go,” he shouted to Whiteout next to him, now the noise muffled for some reason. Now it’s quiet, now it’s loud. This needs to stop. “Where’s Nevermore?” he asked. He winced as his earpiece shocked him, and the chatter from the rest of the team stopped. Damn it, why? Oh well, it doesn’t work when I’m liquid anyways. I’ll make do.

Whiteout poked his head around the column, Nomad doing the same from the other side. Through the flickering lights he saw Blackout drop his gun (it still remained strapped to his uniform), using a baton against an armored Bratva with a sword. A super, I’m guessing. Who uses swords nowadays? Cinder had broken through the ceiling, and had engaged the Galina woman. The rest of the Bratva had escaped or were dead at this point. This is moving faster than we thought. And is an incoherent mess.

“Found him,” said Whiteout. From his body language Nomad could tell he shouted, but it sounded like he yelled through a pillow. “Middle, for some reason.” And there he was, with two guards. Galina near to them let out an explosion of some kind, and the two guards staggered, one dropping.

“Blackout needs help,” shouted Nomad as loud as possible.

“WHAT?”

“BLACKOUT,” repeated Nomad, accompanied by a frantic gesture towards the armored soldier hacking at Blackout, who desperately backed up towards Nomad and Whiteout.

Too close together to shoot at them. Whiteout used his shield to interfere with the soldier’s sword swing while Nomad resumed liquid phase and came to Blackout’s side. The Bratva tried another stab with the tip of his sword towards Blackout. A white orb appeared between the two, deflecting it. Then Nomad was on him, twisting his arm to make him release the sword, then compressing his chest to knock the wind out of him. Nomad spat him back out towards Blackout, ready in case the man was more resilient than most. The man wasn’t, he provided no resistance when Blackout hit him with his baton twice more to be certain (no idea what his powers are, best to be cautious), then pulled out some cuffs. Real cuffs, not the zip ties we’re using.

In the middle of this, gravity suddenly increased threefold, and a horrible metallic screeching sound came from nowhere. Blackout stumbled, then everything blurred around them. Nevermore. He’s one of those guys who need time for their power to get to full strength. Nomad managed to flow away from the area of increased gravity, to a part resembling normal. Light from the spotlights struggled to illuminate the area.

Nevermore still stood in the same place on his own, the others around him were gone. Nomad didn’t see Miya or Gears, he knew Whiteout and Blackout were still behind him, Cinder and Galina hammered at each other, the ground occasionally vibrating from Galina’s explosions. Olivia was on her knees in front of an Undead member leveling a gun at her head. Bad. Nomad started towards her.

Her head jerked, and she fell to the side, beginning to get up again with only a slight pause. The guy shot again, and must have been feeling cocky, because he advanced to right next to her. She backhanded his knee, beginning to get up for a third time. How is she still moving? Her free hand shot forward and dug into the guy’s gut as he began to fall. Now on her feet, she pulled back with her grabbing hand. Her other hand hooked around to the base of the guy’s skull. Some blood and a separated chunk of skull, and the guy lay still on the ground. Olivia stood. Nomad made it about ten yards in the time it took this to happen.

His first thought: She can be pretty lethal when she wants to. His second: Holy shit. Olivia? The same one who protested killing people every step of the way? She turned to the closest person, Nomad, and began to growl. Fuck. Not this again.

He backpedaled quickly. Don’t provoke her, don’t provoke her. She considered him second, sniffed the air, then turned away and stalked towards Nevermore without a word. I hope this goes how I think it will go. The lights flickered on and off, giving a sort of strobe effect, and gravity once again threw down on Nomad. Olivia grunted and kept moving. Everything sounded normal again, just in time for Nomad to be nearly deafened by another Galina explosion. Cinder rocked back from it, managing to not let go of Galina’s arm. As loud as it was for Nomad, it must have been worse for Olivia, because she stopped and let out a roar of pain, hands held to her head.

It took her several seconds to get back fully on her feet, and Nevermore still just stood there. Gears and Miya reached Nomad in the intervening time.

“How we doin’?” asked Gears, coming up beside Nomad.

“OK. Olivia’s pissed. Where’s everyone else? My communicator’s not working.”

“Laura and the rest are fighting the fellas who escaped. Whiteout an’ Blackout left to help, they’re puttin’ up some good resistance.”

“That’s Nevermore, right?” asked Miya, pointing to Nevermore.

“Yeah,” said Nomad.

“He hasn’t run yet?” Olivia began to run towards him.

That’s… actually a good point. Why hasn’t he? “That one guy we interrogated said his power didn’t let him move,” he said.

“So why didn’t he stop using his power and run?” said Miya, some condescension slipping into her voice.

“They did mention something about him not having great control, and it feels like he’s been using it pretty hard,” thought Nomad aloud. “Maybe he can’t shut it off on his own at this point.”

Olivia didn’t take long (poor dude can’t even move), and everything snapped back to normal. No flickering lights, no strange gravity, no whispering from nowhere.

“That was straight outta Mortal Kombat,” commented Gears.

“Olivia?” asked Miya. “The hell? The fuck did they do to her?”

“Someone shot her in the head,” stated Nomad.

“Who?” asked Miya. Her golem shifted, taking humanoid shape and forming a large club capped with a cow skull on the end of the single arm.

“That corpse over there,” said Nomad.

“Oh. Well, that’s best,” she said, looking almost disappointed. Getting protective, are we?

“She’s remarkably spry then, all things considered,” said Gears with a chuckle. How is this funny? “Should we do somethin’ ‘bout scary Russian lady?” He jerked his thumb towards Galina.

She let out another explosion, and Olivia roared again. Fuck. Does she know friend and foe right now? Cinder finally got a good hold of Galina, and punched her in the temple twice. She went limp. That about wraps it up. Hold up…  Olivia still marched towards Cinder and Galina.

An oblivious Gears walked to intercept her, waving shouting, “Hey, fan-fuckin’-tastic job there!”

She flinched at the sound, then stood her ground and hissed at him, claws out. No, no, no, you idiot, Gears. Gears stopped.

“What the hell?” he asked her with no small amount of indignation, throwing up his hands with his shotgun in one. Wait, that’s right, he hasn’t seen her in a murderous frenzy before.

She reacted to the motion, rushing forward with her shoulder and ramming Gears. The seven foot tall mass of metal that was Gears in armor staggered back. A followup swipe of her hand tore off a part of the armguard he raised to defend himself. Olivia picked him up and slammed him on the ground, landing on him and pinning him to the ground. God damn it.

Nomad fired two shots in the air. That got Olivia’s attention. She recoiled away from the sound for a moment, before getting to her feet and off of Gears. “Back off, back off,” he shouted to Cinder and Miya, waving to the side at them to get away. “Gears, stay down, stay quiet.” Don’t agitate her. She doesn’t seem to like loud noises.

Olivia made a weird rumbling sound, stalking towards Nomad.“Olivia,” he said, enunciating each word clearly. “You know us, Olivia. Calm down.”

She advanced.  He slowly put his rifle off to the side. Won’t do too much good anyways, and I can just go to liquid if this goes wrong. “Olivia…” he repeated, raising a placating hand. That got a not-bad response. She stopped, hesitating, though still watching through narrowed, suspicious eyes. She stopped baring her teeth too, that’s a start. Now what?

“Calm down. We’re done now.” He advanced, slow and steady, hands out to the side. He stopped when she let out a hiss. “Olivia, come on now.”

She glanced to the side, at Gears dutifully laying on the ground (I really hope he’s not dead or something) and at Miya, watching on with concern. Olivia sniffed the air, then slowly curled her hands back up. She let out a breath and scratched the back of her head.

“Sorry,” she mumbled.

“You OK now, Olivia?” asked Nomad.

“What?” she asked.

“You OK now, not going to attack anyone?”

“What? I can’t hear you.” She looked over him with concern. “Wait, that was Gears back there.” She whirled around and rushed over to where he lay.

“Ow, fuck,” he said as he accepted her help standing up. “Why did you do that?”

At the same time Olivia said, “Sorry, sorry. I’m really sorry. I didn’t… I’m sorry.” She sounded close to tears.

“It’s all right, I guess,” said Rob. “What the hell were you doin’?”

Olivia stood there looking at her feet, hands behind her back, not responding. Gears cocked his head to the side. “Olivia, you with us?”

“Sorry. Did you say something?”

“Say yes if you can hear this,” he said. Olivia didn’t respond. Gears’ face is covered by a mask. She can’t tell what he’s saying.

“The hell was that?” said Cinder, joining them. “That looked an awful lot like a feral attack to me.”

Nomad sighed. Just one thing after another to deal with. “I don’t know. Nevermore might have messed with her head, I know some dude shot her in the head. And now it’s sounding like she’s deaf. I’m not sure if that was a pun or not but that was unintentional.”

“Wait, in the head?” asked Cinder.

“Yes.”

“Wow, alright,” he said, sounding more understanding. “You up to date on what’s going on outside?”

“No, my comm’s gone,” said Nomad. Delta’s going to be pissed to have to replace that.

“They’re wrapping up outside. The cops will be here soon, you and your people might want to scram.”

***

They pulled into the lair an hour later, split between Nomad and Gears’ cars. After the Watch made Miya give back their gun, and Delta took photo evidence of Nevermore’s death (and the Watch promised to forward them the official rulings). Olivia’s deafness put a damper on the otherwise high spirits of a contract completed. We still need to make sure the Undead split up, but I doubt that will be a problem. There are still a bunch of metahumans, and a power vacuum.

Nomad, Skulker, and Delta got out of his car, while Gears’ truck went around to the back. Nomad opened the door as Olivia and Miya’s bone pile climbed out of the back. Other than Olivia, no one received any injuries.

As everyone began peeling off gear, Chris pulled Miya off to the side. “Can you do anything with ears?”

She sighed. “Are there bones in ears?”

“Yes.”

“Seriously? Bones?” asked Miya as she went to check on Olivia. “I guess that does make sense, I wondered what those tiny ones were for. Now you,” she said to Olivia. “Hold still.” She grabbed her arm. After a moment, Miya said, “This is going to suck, I’m not gonna lie.”

Olivia said, “What?”

Miya held her free hand up to her own ear and mimed an explosion. Suddenly Olivia doubled over and thrashed, breaking Miya’s hold. Her feet clenched, cracking the concrete floor. Miya staggered back. “I was hoping that’d knocked her unconscious.”

Olivia’s hissing continued for a long, tense moment. The hissing stopped, and Olivia came back upright, noticed everyone watching her, then ducked her head again. “Sorry,” Chris heard her murmur.

“Hey, can you hear me?” asked Miya loudly. Olivia’s eyes scrambled.

“Ow,” she said.

“Crap. Sorry,” said Miya in a more normal voice. “Can you hear me?”

“I… can kind of hear you saying stuff. It’s all really muffled. But there’s still this weird ringing sound in my ear, I can hear that,” said Olivia.

“Miya?” asked Amanda.

“I don’t know how ears work. Sorry. I told the little bones to go back to the way they were before about a day ago. It’ll take some time.”

“No. That ringing’s tinnitus, I’m pretty sure.”

“So wha’s that mean?” asked Ben, joining them.

“Erm,” stalled Amanda as she got on the internet. “Could be permanent, could go away. It’s weird, it looks like.”

“We’ll have to wait and see,” said Miya. “Not much we can do.”

There was a prolonged crash behind them as Rob tripped over his armor mannequin. “Fuck,” he said as the bits scattered all over the floor.

“The fuck you doin’ over there?” asked Ben with a laugh.

“Shut up,” called back Rob, starting to pick up the pieces.

“Alright,” said Chris. “Amanda, you contact our client?”

“Lemme go do so,” she said.

“Who wants some celebratory food?” asked Ben enthusiastically.

“Not burgers again,” groaned Miya. “I swear I’ve gained ten pounds from the damn things.”

“Hey, that’s the fastest stuff that’s also meat for her,” Ben said, motioning to Olivia. Hold up a sec, she’s been sitting there watching us talk without knowing what we’re saying.

He pulled out his phone and typed “do you want food?”, then passed it to Olivia.

She read it and smiled slightly. “Yes please.”

“Um, we could get barbeque again,” said Ben.

Amanda said, “And they’re not open. Only fast food joints are open this time of night.”

Miya said, “I guess. I am starving.”

“Food is good. I like food,” called out Rob.

burgers?” typed Nomad. Olivia nodded.

“We’re good for burgers again,” he said for himself and Olivia.

“Right on!” Ben said.

As he drove off, everyone else began settling down, Olivia joining them when Miya waved her over. They settled into companionable silence. Which is good, because it would be a dick move for us to hold a conversation in front of Olivia while she can’t hear.

***

They spent the next two days monitoring the Undead. Nothing had been heard of them, and Jeremy seemed satisfied. The exchange happened smoothly, and entirely online. And I never have to be in the same room with that man again. It’s a win-win, really. The Watch had sent a message thanking them (we really need a name) for their help. Amanda and Chris reciprocated, and from what they could tell Marcus had finally gotten distracted by other things than hunting Olivia.

Olivia’s ears had healed enough for her to hear again, though she still mentioned a constant ringing in both. Which there’s nothing we can do about, which is driving Miya up the wall. Nevertheless, Ben and Rob declared it true celebration time, and dragged off Miya and Amanda to help them get more alcohol. As if all the rum, vodka, everclear, and beer he got last time wasn’t enough. And I’ve gotta figure out how much I’ll owe him for this.

Chris joined Olivia at the table. She’d been staring at the surface for the last ten minutes. I should very probably say something, I haven’t been around here that much lately. She’d spent most of the last day just flying around, and hadn’t really spoken much at all. He had no idea if she would hear him if he spoke quietly, and knew full well she wouldn’t like him raising his voice to louder than average levels. Normal, and hope for the best.

“How you holding up?” he asked.

“I’m OK,” she said. At his doubtful look, she added, “I think.”

“What do you mean by think?”

“I… um… I don’t know. It’s stupid.”

“Come on, Olivia. I’m not going to make fun of you or anything.” At least I guess that’s why she’s so hesitant.

She took a moment. “I killed a guy… again.” She sighed. “I hated every word of that sentence.”

“Olivia, a guy shot you in the head. I think that’s justified.”

“I know. It’s… I don’t know. Did Amanda tell you anything?”

What is this? “I don’t believe so.”

“Oh. Ummm… well… I… that… that’s happened before.”

“Yeah, with Freedom Fighter, right?”

“No.” Chris suppressed an internal groan. That can’t be good. She continued, “I… I forgot your name the first time we fought Membrane and Tod. And Miya’s. And everyone else’s. That happened again that night, and look what happened. I think I hurt Rob, and I’m an idiot, and-”

Chris cut her off. “Don’t worry about Rob. We went over this already. He’s fine, he’s not angry or anything, and this doesn’t sound like anything you can control. You’re not dumb, no more than anyone else.”

“But I killed people again.”

“So?” … wait. I goofed. Way to be an idiot, me.

“So?” repeated Olivia. “Weren’t you in the police? Why are you OK with this?”

“Because I don’t care about Nevermore or any of the Undead, and neither does anyone else,” said Chris. “There are over nine billion people on this world, Olivia. Human life just isn’t worth as much as it should be. Notice how we never really knew any of those faceless guys we mowed down? I just don’t care about any of them. Besides, there’s always more people. Each of them had their own struggles and emotions and everything else, and I couldn’t care less about any of that.”

“But it’s still not right,” said Olivia. Chris strained to hear what she said.

“So? Lots of people die, all the time. It’s them or us, and I do care about us. You get used to it, I guess. Protect and serve all you like, it’s hard to stop every dick with powers from causing at least some harm to the populace.”

“So why did you join the police?” asked Olivia. Chris sighed softly.

She noticed. “Sorry,” said Olivia.

“It’s a long story,” he said. “My parents died in a car crash when I was fourteen. That’s actually how I got my power, only reason I’m alive. The guy got about fifteen years in prison, and the state had the pissed off kid with new powers that was me. They sent me to a foster family, a married couple with no kids of their own. The husband is an accountant for the Freeman Company, the wife was an MHU officer. She’s retired now, don’t worry about the past tense.”

He gave a soft chuckle. “I have no idea how they put up with me for four years, but they did. They’re good people, we visit for Christmas and Thanksgiving. But looking back I want to punch young me in the face for being so obstinate, but they were patient.”

I was a temperamental, self-centered kid who was a jackass for no reason to everyone around him. It was more of a personal failing than anything else. And everyone would just chalk it up to the recent deaths and be so full of pity. Oh, the endless, goddamn pity. Whatever, don’t need to tell Olivia that. I don’t even know why I’m telling her any of this.

“I got better, met Alice once I got into high school a year later. She helped a lot, I’ll be honest.”

“Alice?”

“My girlfriend, yeah. I have no idea what she saw in me, but we made it work. Five years as of last month.” He stopped. Fuck me. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Olivia’s wing practically wrapped around him. He glanced at her. She kept her head down, eyes fixed on the table in front of her, fidgeting with the hem of her shirt.

“Anyways,” he managed, “the guy got let out on parole after about two years. At that point I decided to be a cop, so I could stop those kinds of things from happening.” And now I can’t, because even after all this, I’m probably blacklisted from the police and the military. God DAMN it, Marcus. “So, yeah,” he finished lamely. “That’s my story.”

“I’m sorry. That’s awful. I couldn’t… couldn’t imagine losing one of you guys,” she said.

“No worries, we’re not going anywhere. And this was years ago,” said Chris, forcing some cavalier-ness (is cavalier-ness a word?) into his voice. “Cheer up, we just…” Don’t mention the contract, though she’s probably right. “survived a good amount of danger.” What the hell did I just say? “Come on, let’s get everything ready for the rest.” Something to do, rather than just sit there.

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Contract – Fast Track

The next day had an initially pleasant surprise: Amanda finally had Olivia’s phone ready.

“Here you go, give it a try,” said Amanda, passing the phone to Olivia.

Olivia took it and flipped open the phone. The screen read “Yes or No.” That was it. But… what’s the question? There’s no question on the screen. Maybe I’m just missing something. She pressed “Yes.”Error.” The “Yes or No” reappeared. She pressed “No.”Error.” What?

“Need some help?” asked Amanda.

“Um…” She showed her the screen. “I don’t think it works.”

“Damn it. That shouldn’t happen. It worked before.” Amanda grabbed it, muttering the foulest curses Olivia had ever heard.

“Hey, Amanda,” started Ben, wearing a plain red shirt. Amanda said nothing, probably trying desperately to ignore him. “Amanda. Amanda.” A pause. “AMANDA!” he screamed almost directly in her ear.

“WHAT?” she screamed back. Ow. Please stop shouting.

“Danger zone!”

“No. No. None of this,” she said. “Go away.”

“So how is yer great an’ superior techie power workin’ for ya?”

“Go fuck yourself.”

“Reserves of intelligence depleted?” Amanda glared. Ben continued, “Don’ worry, hon, happens to a lotta girls.” What did he just say?

At Amanda’s expression, Olivia gently smacked him upside the head on general principle. Gently in this case meaning his head jerked and he stumbled forward a little bit. Was he being sexist? I think so. Better safe than sorry.

“Stop it,” said Olivia.

“Get away from me, right now,” said Amanda, still glaring at Ben.

Ben snickered and rubbed the back of his head, leaving to join Rob, wearing a plain green shirt so everyone could tell them apart. Rob was doing… something over there, Olivia hadn’t asked what yet. Something that warranted lots of sharp metallic clanks from his anvil. Amanda took the cellphone back to her desk and plugged it in to a computer. Miya rolled her shoulder at the table in the meantime, working out any remaining kinks. She’s finally able to move it around without grimacing. A couple days ago Olivia had to separate her and Amanda; some tensions remained about Miya trying to leave. Chris talked on the phone outside of the lair. Then the door opened and Chris came back inside, putting away his phone as he did so.

“Look alive,” he announced to the lair at large. “The Watch just called me. They know where Nevermore’s going to be tonight. We’ll need to be moving in an hour or so.” Really? I kind of got the feeling that they didn’t like us too much.

“Seriously?” asked Ben, voicing Olivia’s skepticism.

“Seriously,” replied Chris. Everyone began gathering around him. One of their biggest hurdles, as it was with Freedom Fighter, was simply not knowing where Nevermore was.

“Apparently there’s a big meeting between the Undead and the Russian mob, the Bratva. The Watch wants to swoop in and break it up, but they don’t have enough manpower. It’s a big meeting, and the Watch only has four people right now,” said Chris. “They asked us to assist. I told them about the hit on Nevermore’s head, and they were OK with it.” Seriously? Am I just a strange anomaly when it comes to this?

“If they’re looking for manpower, why didn’t they tell the police?” asked Miya.

“The Watch’s got a weird relationship with ‘em. They don’ like runnin’ to the cops every time somethin’ major happens. They would’ve if we weren’t here, but they’d rather not,” explained Ben.

“And I’m guessing you and Olivia were the ones that told them about us in the first place?” asked Chris. They’d told him what they did when they got back last night, but he hadn’t asked any questions about it. Good. I thought Ben would have made me explain everything again.

“Yep,” said Ben.

Chris nodded. “OK. This meeting between the Bratva and the Undead is going to be a major one. There are going to be a lot of hostiles there. And even more footsoldiers, but we’re going to have the element of surprise if we do this right. The Watch wants to meet up in about an hour to talk strategy.”

“This a trap?” asked Rob.

“Possibly, but I doubt it. Also, tangent question for you, Ben. Why did you have so many explosives in your old apartment?

“I got bored,” was his glib reply. “An’ every problem can be solved with the proper application of explosions, might I add.”

“Yeah. That’s super illegal,” said Amanda.

“I’m aware,” said Ben. Of course you are.

Chris sighed. “That’s why the police are actively looking for you. Anyways, if the Watch was gunning for us, they wouldn’t have let Ben and Olivia go so easily. Laura was pretty clear about that, and she’s got a good head on her shoulders.” I don’t really know anyone outside of the five of you, do I? Chris continued, “I’m willing to meet with them, and I don’t think there’s any real reason to arrest Amanda, but if the rest of you aren’t comfortable with meeting them, you don’t have to.”

Ben and Rob exchanged glances and shrugged. Miya said, “I’m good.”

Everyone looked at Olivia. Oh, right. “Sure,” she said.

“Alright,” said Chris. “You have an hour to prepare,” he said to the group. “Also, the Watch told me they might have Purifier on board, just as a heads up. They’re not sure on that though.” Another vigilante. I really hope he’s not like Guardsman. The group dispersed.

***

“No Purifier?” asked Nomad as they walked into the back of the restaurant. Why is everything we do at night? It makes us seem… illegitimate. Wait, we aren’t exactly on the right side of the law. Never mind.

“Nope,” said Cinder as he held the door open. I can live with that. “This is owned by a friend of ours. Don’t mess with anything.”

Inside stood or sat Laura, Blackout, and Whiteout around a table. A beat up, crooked old table. Olivia could see three different deep gouges on the top, and a set of blueprints only partially concealed a large dark discoloration on the rough surface of the wood. The table wasn’t large enough for all ten people, so only Laura, Whiteout, Nomad, and Delta stood around it. The rest went off to the side, in easy listening distance. I can just look in over Laura’s head anyways.

“So what are we looking at?” asked Nomad.

“The Russians your people helped us apprehend were led by one of their boss’s enforcers, a woman named Galina,” said Laura without preamble. Getting right to it then. Also, that explains why there were two or three supers in that group of five people. “She escaped, but her men didn’t. They mentioned this meeting, and they’re well placed enough that we believe them to be credible. The Undead are mostly just kids playing part, but the Bratva aren’t to be underestimated.”

As Laura continued, Olivia overheard Cinder tell Blackout, “All we need to do is blast the national anthem loud enough. They’re Russian, they’ll just ignite. Like daylight to some vampires.”

“I, uh, I don’t think it works like that,” responded Blackout through the black cloth of his mask.

Olivia asked Miya next to her in a low voice, “Why are they Russian?”

“There’s a lot of Russian immigrants here, I think. Doesn’t snow nearly as much here,” said Miya.

Gears, to her other side, said, “Russia’s not a nice place to be, since the whole fall of communism thing. Siberians don’t really like humans.”

“What?” asked Olivia. What is this about Siberians? And the fall of communism?

“You’re going to have to be more specific,” said Miya.

“Sorry. What’s a Siberian? And what’s communism?”

“Wha’s communism?” repeated Skulker in a hushed voice. Laura and Nomad still talked, Delta and Whiteout chiming in on occasion. “Ya are familiar with what a government is, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s start here. Wha’s democracy?” said Skulker.

“Voting. Right?”

“Eh. Basically,” said Miya.

Gears said, “It’s super complex, an’ we don’t really have time to go into it, but basically us, ‘merica, and communists, Russia, were in a cold war, an’ occasionally hot, for about forty some odd years. Then their economy collapsed or somethin’, this was ‘bout when we were born so I’m not entirely sure on the specifics, an’ now here we are.”

“When you say hot and cold wars, does that mean…” Climate? No, that’s dumb. Um… maybe it’s…

Before she could finish her thought Skulker said, “Cold war is two guys talkin’ shit an’ sizin’ each other up.”

Gears finished, “Hot war is actually throwin’ punches.”

“While interesting, I still don’t know what communism is besides Russian,” said Olivia.

“It’s not Russian. At least not necessarily,” said Miya. “You’ve basically got the right wing way of thinking and the left wing way of thinking. Those are more economic schools of thought, but for right now I’m including some social implications. The right is more for the glory of the nation rather than anything else. I know Mexico is fairly right wing because of Cuauhtémoc’s philosophy. The US is considered moderately right, I think a good third of all presidents have also been active generals. The prevailing theory is freedom to do what you want with stuff leads to a sort of utopia, but if the Nazis proved anything it’s that that concept is very easily subverted. Communism is the exact opposite, trying to eliminate private property. Spreading the wealth for the good of the working class, spreading the revolution and whatnot. Ultimately the government tells you what to do, and a populist dictator takes over using proletariat rhetoric. None of this is exclusive to one country. Socialist, and I know that’s not the same as communist but you’re going to have to roll with it for now, exist everywhere, and corporations exist everywhere. So it’s a choice between the lesser of two evils. That’s my understanding at least, and grossly oversimplified, but people take entire college courses on this kind of stuff.”

Olivia, Gears, and Skulker stared at her. “How the hell do ya know all that?” asked Gears. That must have been too loud, because the talking at the grown up table faltered for a moment before resuming.

She shrugged. “My grandmother was pretty nationalistic, and not American nationalistic. My two older brothers gobbled that communism shit up from those pamphlets the communist party would sometimes go around distributing where I lived.” I didn’t know she had siblings.

“Alright everyone, gather round,” called out Whiteout. “We need to see if there’s anything glaringly stupid in the plan we’ve hashed out.”

Everyone crowded around as best they could. “So the two gangs are meeting in this construction site in two hours. It was supposed to be a children’s hospital, but funding dried up.” Oh god, that’s terrible. “It is somewhat within Bratva territory, or at least what they claim as their territory. The police do have a good hold on some of it, but after Freedom Fighter, the mob has reasserted themselves in this part of the city.”

“What are they hopin’ to get from the Undead? Or vice versa?” asked Skulker.

“The Russians are well known weapons smugglers. The Undead are better entrenched in large parts of the southern parts of the city, and there’s no one who doesn’t want money. The two of them occasionally clash on the outskirts of each other’s territories,” explained Whiteout, his eyes on the blueprints. “That doesn’t change the fact that they’re going to be here, and in force. About seven parahumans, and maybe twenty to thirty foot soldiers.” This sounds really dangerous. Really, really dangerous.

“Now that all of us are here, and we have a rough idea of what everyone can do, we have a plan,” said Delta.

“Which will turn to shit the moment we meet the enemy,” said Skulker. Everyone looked at him. “What? It’s Murphy’s Law… I think.” That thing again.

Cinder snorted in amusement, and Delta said, “Anyways, there are three entrances, one of which is fairly out of the way. We split up and attack from both directions except one. That way will still be guarded, but they won’t know that. They’ll run for that, rather than standing and fighting and overwhelming us with their numbers. Me, Laura, and Skulker will…”

***

Olivia and Cinder stood on a tall building in the Tech Center, a sort of second downtown area primarily for businesses. Cinder surveyed the area with a pair of binoculars. At least I don’t need those. After another pass Cinder lowered his binoculars.

The ability to fly made them the most mobile of the group. They watched for the Undead, supposed to come in from the southern part of the city. Delta, Laura, and Skulker watched the third, hidden exit to the abandoned construction site. Gears and Miya took the Undead entrance to the meeting place, and Nomad, Blackout, and Whiteout took the Bratva entrance. And we get to be the advanced scouts. And we get to make our own entrance as well.

The plan called for the two flying bricks to hit the center of the meeting. Gears’ group and Nomad’s group would move in once everyone was sufficiently distracted. So it will be just me and Cinder against a bunch of people, on our own for a bit. And everyone else is in trouble if we don’t do this right. She took a deep breath. No cars came this way that she could hear. Her ears were better now. Of course they’ll be hurting just as much, if not more, by the end of this. The shotgun pellets she’d taken to the chest yesterday still hurt when she moved too much, but that wasn’t crippling, just mildly annoying.

She took a deep breath. Don’t mess up.

“Hey, you all right?” asked Cinder, making her jump. This was the first thing he’d said to her all night. “You look nervous.”

“Oh, sorry. Yeah. Kind of.” Good job me. Way to be weird.

“First time doing this?”

“Yeah. I haven’t done anything like this before.” The Freedom Fighter thing had been more trying to avoid a large fight like this, rather than instigate it. Everyone was expecting a lethal firefight. The Watch wielded submachine guns with some weird German name this time, and even had a spare one with enough spare ammo for Miya to use. They have a lot more money at their disposal than we do. Miya was pretty happy about the new toy.

“Eh. It’s alright to be nervous. So long as you don’t fuck up because of it, of course.” Of course.

“I know. I just don’t want anyone of ours to get hurt. And it is kind of depressing that this is a failed children’s hospital.”

“Wait, so you understand the implications of a children’s hospital running out of money, but you don’t know what communism is?” he said with a small smile.

“I know. I’m weird. I can’t remember a lot of stuff.”

“No kidding. That is unfortunate.”

“Olivia, Cinder, got eyes on the cars?” asked Delta through the comms.

Olivia, who’d been keeping an ear out, said, “No, nothing.”

“Alright. The Russians just arrived, so the Undead should come your way any moment.”

“Thank you, Delta,” said Cinder. The comms cut out, and he glanced sideways at Olivia. “You gonna be able to do this?” he asked.

“Yeah. Sorry.”

Another silent minute, then Olivia heard cars, approaching very fast. “I hear some cars.” No going back now.

Cinder perked up. “Where from?” She pointed him in the right direction. Three cars, like the ones that ambushed them in the shantytown, hurtled down the road. “Idiots,” she heard Cinder mutter under his breath.

As he kept track of them, Olivia said over the comms to everyone else, “Hey, the Undead are coming.”

The groups sent in their various confirmations that they’d heard, and Cinder attached his binoculars to his belt. He hovered up into the air, and Olivia took that as her cue to take flight. They followed the cars a fair distance in the air away from them. As they approached the meeting place, Cinder looked back to Olivia and motioned upwards. He flew with his arms held to his sides, and legs held as straight as possible. That looks awkward and uncomfortable, but he doesn’t fly using an enormous wingspan, so I guess I shouldn’t judge.

They reached the top of the half finished building. The skeleton of the hospital jutted out from a concrete foundation. The site itself had weed growing from the exposed barren earth. The construction companies had even taken the heavy equipment away to other, better paying projects. The only walls Olivia saw were the concrete walls of the foundation on the ground, where the meeting was supposed to occur. The Undead drove in through a gate in the chain link fence around the site. Some armed guards kept a lookout in the middle levels of the skeleton, but Cinder and Olivia flew silently.

They landed as quietly as possible, the rumbling of the idling engines masking the sounds of Olivia’s claws clanking and the thuds of Cinder’s boots on the I-beam. They looked down.

The Bratva had vigilant guards on their side, watching every which way. Everyone seemed to be packing heat, except the Galina woman from before, standing to the side of another, older man at the fore of the Bratva group. The Undead, in contrast, lounged by their cars in a blob, only one bothering to watch the way they came. Which is Nevermore? At least five different people smoked cigarettes. Olivia coughed. I’ve smelled it before, but that is just foul up close.

“Alright,” Cinder whispered. “Skulker, do you have a good idea how many there are up here with us?”

“Five,” he responded. I think I hear more nearby.

“Um…” said Olivia.

“What?” asked Cinder and Skulker.

“I think there’s six. Two there, there…” she pointed out the separate individual Bratva soldiers. Two talking in Russian off while patrolling on the partially finished third floor. Another sat in a hole on the second floor, overlooking the meeting place with one hand on a rifle. The other three were scattered about on the fourth floor. “One is behind a big support column, Skulker.”

“You sure?” asked Cinder. They’re not quiet in those boots.

“Yeah.”

“Not a deal breaker, but good. Skulker, you know who you’re shooting?”

“Yessah. I’mma shoot the guy on the overlook. His back’s to me, so he’ll fall right onto the rest of the party.” Guy on the second floor. I think. I hope. I don’t want to mess this up.

“Good. You get to kick this off.”

“Goody. I’ll tell you all when,” said Laura.

“We need to take out the guys up here,” said Cinder to just Olivia now. “You go in from the south, I’ll take the north. We’ll meet up in the middle, then Laura or Delta will have something for us. Worst come to worst, you lose contact or I die, go for Nevermore if you can. He’s the area affecting guy, he can fuck up everyone should he so choose. Be loud, don’t die.” Right. Don’t die. That’s important.

“Everyone else ready?” asked Laura.

“We cool,” said Gears.

“Ready,” said Whiteout.

“All good,” said Cinder. That’s everyone. Deep breath.

“Bueno. Shooting in five, four…” Skulker trailed off, presumably concentrating.

Once Skulker began his countdown, Cinder nodded to Olivia and hovered upwards. Get moving, me. You know full well where the guys up here are. Go. She jumped into the open air. Remember what they said. Move and take out quickly. Break bones. I really have no desire to do that. She turned as sharply in the air as possible, towards the first person.

Still too high to make visual contact with her target, she heard Laura in her ear yell, “GO.” A dull crack. She swooped in towards the soldier. Shouting from below. The woman saw her as she came in, beginning to bring her gun up. She collided before it moved more than a few inches. A couple reflexive shots went wide.

She landed on top of her, pinning her chest under one arm, Olivia’s other arm grabbing her gun arm. She heard shots from somewhere else on the floor. Cinder.

Gunshots sounded different, and so far all she’d heard were hunting rifles, shotguns, and various pistols; mobs, or her friends, or gang members using whatever guns they managed to scrounge up. The prolonged low rattling of Cinder’s submachine gun stood out to Olivia. Right, I have things to deal with right now. She’d considered shouting to check the “be loud” block, but couldn’t think of anything appropriate. Well, the gunfire will be good enough.

She elbowed the woman in the face as hard as she dared. Her head jerked to the side and she stopped struggling. Unconscious. Keep moving. She jumped to her feet. Cinder had the other two down. “I got the next two,” he shouted. “Get down there.” Did the lights just flicker?

For the second time she jumped out of the half finished building, this time heading for the ground floor. She nearly crashed as she heard a faint whisper from directly behind her, over the sounds shouting with various levels of panic. Whoa, what was that? People were firing guns all over the place now, sometimes without anything concrete to hit. Another whisper, followed by another crack from Skulker’s rifle, much louder this time.

She went down two levels, then dove in through an opening above the ground floor, tucking in her wings as far as she dared to avoid getting caught between two support beams. She landed in a roll on one the roof of one of the Undead’s cars. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Nomad in liquid form slam a Bratva soldier against the concrete wall. Another crumpled soldier laying against the opposite wall. He took up most of the entrance, allowing Blackout and Whiteout to move forward.

She smacked one Undead member aside with her tail, then grabbed another who reacted too slowly, jumping down from the hood. Something hit her back. That’s annoying. And the lights are getting all weird. She bent the elbow of the Undead she held. I’m really sorry. A crack, this time from bones. She threw the guy aside, not wanting to do any more harm to a guy who probably was out of the fight at that point. Then another crack, this time from Skulker’s rifle. This time she saw an exposed guy jerk a bit, then fall. Don’t think about that right now. Don’t.

The area was complete chaos. The Undead ran in different directions, firing wildly and blindly, except for three in the rough center of the construction site. A small group of Bratva surrounded and escorted the older man away from the area. The attention of the rest was mainly on the floors above where Olivia had been, though she saw some Undead and Bratva exchange fire. Galina kept with the escort, until Cinder burst down through a hole he just made. There was a huge one about ten yards to your right. Why did you do that? A concussive blast emanated from the woman, near the three Undead. Two fell, one just stood there. Cinder bore it, then charged. Ahhh! That hurt a lot.

The lights were definitely flickering off and on, and the whispering Olivia swore she heard became more insistent. Everything seemed to move more sluggishly, her limbs not responding immediately like they always did, instead with an almost imperceptible delay. From what she could see, the same was happening to everyone else. She saw a guy spin around for no reason, then trip. She could barely hear anything beyond a faint ringing sound in her ears. This is a weird feeling. Wait, what was Nevermore’s power again?

She removed her hands from her ears (when did I do that?) took another step in the direction of the three more composed Undead, which took a lot more effort than she was accustomed to. This needs to stop now. With Gears and Miya with her golem coming up to finish the last of the Undead, Olivia made for the last three, one of whom still lay writhing on the ground. The old Russian guy and his guards had left through the third entrance. Cinder and Galina engaged in round two. The remaining Bratva soldiers, about five or so, more than they had originally anticipated, fired at Nomad’s group, keeping Whiteout and Blackout under cover.

She ran, making a concerted effort not to trip over her foot claws. One guy, Olivia took him to be Nevermore based on the black clothing and raven mask, hadn’t moved from his original location, despite the fact that Galina and Cinder nearly leveled him a couple time. The other had dragged the third out of the way, and noticed Olivia. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. He shot. She stumbled as the bullets hit her chest, agitating the previous bullet wounds. He backed up as she continued forward, reloading.

Olivia had been hearing nothing but faint ringing for the last couple moments, no talking, no footsteps, gunshots were so faint she could almost take it as part of the ringing. Suddenly a piercing screech pierced her ears, drowning out the ringing and everything else. Her eyes scrambled. This continued for five or six second. Bad, I’m on my knees. Stop him. Kill him. She began to get up, and a foot hit her in the shoulder. She glared up, none of her momentum taken. The Undead soldier leveled his gun at her at point blank.

A bullet hit her in the skull.

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Contract – Decentralize

“Gears.”

“Yep.”

“There’s only three people back here.”

“Yep.”

“We loaded five.”

“Yep.”

“Would you like to explain this sudden reduction in captives?”

“Nope.”

“Let me rephrase that. Explain this sudden reduction in captives.”

“Well, Nomad. You see… do you believe in velociraptor attacks?” Well done sir. Trying to pass off blame to the velociraptors, of which there are probably ten of in the world, and now ridden by Mexican bandits. Classic.

“No.”

“Then that’s unfortunate, cuz that’s within the realms of possibility. Speedy little buggers they are.” You have no idea.

“Let’s try this one more time. Seriously this time.”

“OK. The tattoo ones apparently had serious teleportation powers, cuz they just up an’ vanished seven minutes ago, as I watched ‘em. Not invisible, gone. Clothes, rope around their hands, an’ a pair of sunglasses are still there, didn’t go with ‘em.”

“So why didn’t they do that the instant we captured them? I can understand the ‘not wanting to fight naked’ part, but this doesn’t add up,” said Nomad.

“Maybe it’s not teleportation, or at least not something they can control,” said Skulker. See everyone? I has critical thinking sometimes on occasion.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say they had a sort of psychic link when I had to subdue them,” said Nomad.

“You also had to fight the clown guy, didn’t ya?” Some Joker wannabe.

“Yes. Though I doubt he was the cause. Unless he followed us, but you or Olivia would have picked up on that. Other than the weird telepathy, the tattoo guys didn’t have any powers.”

“Duplicator or duplicators?” asked Gears, getting out and leaning against the opened rear of the BAT, where the three remaining captives lay. I’m surprised he’s using it for this. I thought he liked to keep his pet away from shady activities such as this. The damn thing drives like an old refrigerator.

It was still the middle of the night. They’d driven north, near the city’s shantytown. Ramshackle huts, made of corrugated tin and whatever other building materials the inhabitants managed to scrounge up, leaned against abandoned and rotting buildings. This was the area the police avoided if at all possible. So long as they didn’t do anything overt, they wouldn’t have to worry about anyone. Olivia took care of Guardsman, so only Purifier would really come towards here. Skulker, Guardsman, and Purifier were the only sole vigilantes in the city. Vigilantes were unofficial, and only unofficial things happened in the shantytowns.

Skulker had found a private place for them to conduct an interrogation of sorts. I used to patrol around here, I know this place. An empty parking lot, surrounded by chainlink fence with fabric over it to hide it from the outside. He’d driven, with Nomad riding shotgun and Gears in the back keeping an eye out on the captives and making sure they kept their heads down. Miya packed her golem into Delta’s car, along with Delta and the cash taken from the Undead they would use to pay The Company.

“Don’t know. They looked different, so I’m guessing two, though one is also entirely possible,” said Nomad. How dare we narrow it down.

“How long ago was that? Odds of them trackin’ us to here?” asked Skulker.

“Was about seven or so minutes before we stopped here, so no, odds are good we’re home free, considerin’ you drive like a lunatic on speed.”

“So where are the others?” asked Skulker. They’d turned off the comms, except for Delta. Less transmissions for someone to accidentally pick up on.

“Olivia’s flying around for a bit. She’ll find us later. Delta and Miya should be here any time,” said Nomad. Makes sense. We drove separately after all.

“Oh yeah. Why was Miya pissed off?” He’d asked Miya herself when she joined him on the roof, and received a nice glare in response.

“She was messing with one of these guys,” Nomad motioned to the captives. “Olivia told her to stop, and Miya started trying to pick a fight with her.” Gears snorted in disbelief.

“She picked a fight with Olivia?” I couldn’t care less about these prisoners, but picking a fight with Olivia? That’s like picking a fight with a teddy bear. “Tha’s like pickin’ a fight with a teddy bear. Except it’s an actual bear in disguise. Why would she do that?”

“I don’t know,” said Nomad with a shrug, not volunteering any more information. Olivia will probably fly around til we’re done with the info extracting. Doesn’t seem to approve of this kind of stuff.

A car drove up to the gate to the parking lot. Gears walked over, looked at it, and unlocked the gate to let it in. Delta’s car.

“Alrighty then, fellas,” said Skulker to the guys in the back. “Out with you. Line up where I show ya.” He grabbed the nearest one and pulled him forward to his feet. The rest glared. Skulker pulled out a long knife and twirled it in his hand. They got the message.

“Let’s do this,” said Miya as she and Delta got out of the car. Vicious little girl. He twirled the knife again.

***

“Alright,” said Nomad. “One more time.” One more time for you to fuck up and show us if you’re bullshiting or not.

“What? Why?” said the less than devoted Undead member. This guy had been the most cooperative. They had listened to the others, but the first one spouted nothing but lies and currently needed medical attention as a result. The first addresses he produced when prodded for information on where Nevermore liked to hang out happened to be a retirement home, a local restaurant, and a massive skyscraper owned by some bank. Miya only exacerbated the matter. The other just glared without speaking, and just spat every time they took out the gag. Nomad kept Miya away from the prisoners.

“Because once you finish we let you go, an’ your friend here doesn’t die. Last time,” said Nomad.

Looking uneasy, the guy fidgeted in his bonds and said, “Alright. Nevermore’s a guy out of Kansas City. He’s a cool enough guy, came up with the idea of getting into the drug dealing business ourselves, rather than just buying the stuff. We’re just doing stuff like ecstasy or weed, no meth or anything. He knew how to get better guns too. There’s a couple places we’re using…”

He began rattling off addresses, while Nomad nodded, encouraging him to continue. Gears loomed over the other two. Skulker kept half an eye on the proceedings as he kept lookout. He assumed Olivia was keeping an eye out in the sky, he hadn’t seen her since they raided the warehouse. Miya sulked near Delta’s car. Delta monitored everything the guy said. So far, everything checked out it seemed. The guy’s information hadn’t changed.

He came to the bit about Nevermore’s power. They hadn’t pushed him too far for anything on the other metahumans in the gang, that might make him clam up. Skulker perked up at that, Nevermore’s power sounded weird. “It’s a kind of area distortion thing. He doesn’t use it often. I know that he can’t move once he starts it, and it affects everything in the radius. I have no idea what the radius is, maybe a block or two. It fucks with everything. Gravity gets all screwy, you hear shit from everywhere, the lights flicker and go out. I’ve only been in it once for about a minute, and that was enough.”

Nomad asked a question Skulker hadn’t heard before. “Know anyone by the last name of Schrader?” What does this have to do with anything?

“Yeah, why?”

“One of you?” Nomad gestured the three captives.

“No. He lives at one of the other places. Why?”

“OK,” said Nomad, not answering his question. “Load them up.” He jerked his thumb towards the BAT.

“What? I thought you would let us go?” said the captive with a large hint of desperation.

“We’re in the shantytown, buddy,” said Gears, grabbing the angry one and hauling him to his feet. “We let the three of you go with that guy in that state, the lot of you are gonna die.” Has no one bothered to tell them we’re letting them go, still tied up, and then calling the police to come pick them up?

“The fuzz is still gonna getcha, but yeah, we’re droppin’ you off in a place we’re yer throat won’t be slit the second we drive off,” said Skulker. There we go. Honesty!

The guy’s protest was cut short by Nomad stuffing the gag back in his mouth and hauling him up. Good thing we cleaned those beforehand. Skulker and Delta grabbed the last guy, who stifled a scream of pain. Miya did something to his skeleton. She said it’d wear off in an hour or so. She’s a fucking idiot sometimes, that’s no way to get someone to tell you real information. Though that serves him right for standing between us and our paycheck.

They tied the captives down in the back so they wouldn’t pop up and escape or something. They hadn’t done that last time as they were more concerned with getting out of the crime scene they had just perpetrated.

The sun was beginning to rise, they would probably have to leave soon. “Anyone seen Olivia?” asked Nomad as Skulker tied the last guy down.

“She called in a bit ago. She’s fine,” said Delta.

“We gettin’ outta here now?” asked Skulker.

“We’re not just going to shoot ‘em?” asked Miya. The fuck is wrong with you? We said we’d let them go, and I’m not going back on my word, especially like that. There a reason you’ve got all weird all of a sudden?

“No. One, that’s kind of unnecessary. We don’t want a reputation for killing people in cold blood. Two, this’ll bring attention to the Undead. The bad kind. The force will see an opportunity with them weakened by us raiding that warehouse.”

“Yep. They found the drugs we left them. There’s a lot of radio chatter about them now,” said Delta.

Just then, Olivia landed. “Hey,” said Skulker as he waved to her.

“Hi.”

Nomad, Delta, and Gears talked by the BAT, while Miya still sulked on her own. She probably just needs some time to cool her head.

“Did everything go OK? Um… sorry I couldn’t help or anything,” said Olivia, casting a sideways glance at the three in the truck.

“Yep. Everything went fine. They cooperated, we got some good information out of them, the police will pick ‘em up at some other spot soon enough, everyone wins. Except them, of course.”

“We can’t just leave them here?”

“You get a look at this place?” asked Skulker.

“From the air, yes.”

“Did you notice anythin’ about it?”

“…no? Not really,” she said after a moment.

“This’s the shantytown,” said Ben. Aaaand you don’t know why that’s important. “Lots of unemployed. Lots of desperate people. Usually they gather on the outskirts of a city, but there’s a whole lot of nothing in terms of functioning businesses and whatnot here in this part of the city, so the homeless jus’ live here instead. Rent’s free in an abandoned building, same as a shanty, an’ Johnny Law only comes in here if he has to. Tha’s why we’re here. But if we leave those guys here, tied up, there’s a good chance they’ll die before the cops can come get ‘em.”

“OK,” she said, looking troubled.

“What’ve you been up to?”

“Just flying around. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do that for fun.”

“Fun?” I guess that could be fun. “How’s it up there?”

“It’s nice. Kind of peaceful if the wind isn’t too bad,” she said somewhat defensively.

“Hmm. Gettin’ hungry. Me an’ Gears are probably gettin’ burgers after this. You want anythin’?” And then a nice long nap, because I could use some sleep.

“Sure,” she said.

Nomad spoke to the group at large. “Alright everyone-” The roar of cars on the roads outside cut him off, as well as something hitting the fence. A portion of the fence collapsed on Delta’s car, Miya barely jumped out of the way in time.

“Son of a bitch!” snapped Delta.

“Hello! Have you heard the good news about our lord and savior Jesus Christ?” screamed Membrane as he tossed a flaming Molotov cocktail through the opening in the fence. What the fuck is he doing here?

He saw Solid Tod standing next to him, both wearing the exact same outfits as before. Didn’t Olivia fuck up Tod? How is he back in action so fast? Beyond them, armed and masked gang members got out of three muscle cars. Skulker thought he spotted two with an inordinate number of tattoos. Well, they came back to bite us in the collective ass.

“Down now!” yelled Nomad, diving as the cocktail landed in the middle of the lot where they were parked. Gears and Delta followed suit. Miya had taken cover behind Delta’s car, still very close to the gun toting people outside, who began firing. This is bad. The only cover to be found was the two cars, one of which now partially under the fence. Skulker and Olivia, who’d walked a good distance off to the side and off balance from the small explosion, were out of only the most immediate of dangers.

Suddenly, Olivia flew off to crash against the fence on the other side of the parking lot (in all fairness it’s not a big parking lot). Never mind about that immediate danger part. In her place stood Tod.

“Get on your goddamn knees!” he spat in Skulker’s face. I’ll pass on that, thank you very much. Also, you don’t have good pattern recognition, do you? You did that to Olivia before, and look where it got you.

Gunfire, and lots of it, came from both sides. None came towards Tod or Skulker, no one wanted to hit their own man. Skulker managed to dodge out of the way of the haymaker Tod threw towards his head. Another dodged punch, and Skulker turned and teleported away to get some room. He turned around again, back towards Tod’s direction, and saw Tod lunge from a good fifteen yards away. I fucked up. Forgot about his power. Reflexively he froze time…

…and stopped Tod’s fist, an inch from shattering his skull. An inch, maybe two from my nose. Tod was frozen, and not just because of the time thing. He’d traveled about fifteen yards in the exact same position as he started, lunging fist first. At a guess: it’s a combo of teleportation and strength. He can hit things with the force of the teleportation, which isn’t instantaneous. And get moving, that’s two seconds already. His head already hurt.

He ducked under the fist, moving to behind Tod. Three.

Still moving. He grabbed his pistol. Four.

Still moving. Five.

He now stood behind Tod. He flicked the safety of his pistol. Six.

He prepared himself, standing firm and aiming directly at the back of Tod’s head, finger on the trigger. Seven. Time resumed instantaneously once he let it.

He pulled the trigger. A gunshot. Tod came to a stop where Skulker had been standing, then turned back towards Skulker and punched again, catching Skulker off guard. I fucked up…somehow. Also: ow. He’s gotta have some sort of invincibility if that bullet didn’t do anything.  Tod capitalized on his surprise, punching Skulker in the gut, elbowing him in the head, then grabbing Skulker’s head with both hands and driving it into Tod’s knee. Skulker mitigated the damage as best he could. Skulker’s thoughts devolved to: Fuck. OW. Fuck this shit. Fuck. Ow.

Skulker reeled back from the blows to the head, still standing somehow, and Tod would have kept attacking had Olivia not blindsided him with a tackle. Damn it, she shoved him, didn’t pull him to the ground. Skulker aimed his pistol and fired three shots. Two went close to Tod, missing, and the other hit Olivia in the wing, distracting her enough for Tod to wiggle free. Whoops. Fuck, I’m not at the top of my game today. And head injuries are not conductive to good aim. Though I don’t quite have a concussion, it felt like a standard guy hitting me.

He put away the pistol and pulled out a knife. I want to get close to you so you can’t do that annoying pulverizing strike of deadliness. Also, I’m copyrighting that for the kung fu game I hope to but never will make. Olivia slashed across Tod’s arm as he ran. Tod teleported away, ramming into the fence, though without enough force to break it. Skulker briefly considered letting Olivia handle him. Goddamn headache. Whatever. Quit bitching and get moving. One teleport, then two put him next to Tod. Before Skulker could stab him, Tod turned back and punched Olivia again.

Olivia staggered back, allowing Tod to teleport again. This is no fun, being on the other end of this. Things got even better. Another couple of cars drove up to the flanks of the BAT, where Delta, Nomad, and Gears ducked and returned fire at the original attackers, outside the fence. Fires on the asphalt from the Molotov cocktails Membrane used threw black smoke up into the sky. The new cars dropped off more gang members, who began firing at them. We can’t stay here.

Olivia apparently agreed with his assessment. She let out a roar and took flight. Wait a minute… He ducked right as Tod careened over him. Going for the head again. Tod overshot him, stumbling over Skulker. I’m a lucky son of a bitch. Skulker slashed with his knife, not caring exactly what part of Tod he hit. He gave a shallow cut to the back of Tod’s leg for his efforts. Before Tod could turn around Skulker drove a kick into the brand new knife wound. Tod dropped with a gasp of pain.

Right as Skulker was about to drive his knife into the side of Tod’s neck, gunfire erupted around him from the flank. He dove, rolled, and came up. Then a loud roar came from where the original cars came from. Good job, Little Bird. He pulled out his pistol with his other hand and fired in the direction of the new cars, not caring if he hit anything, just trying to keep them from shooting at him further.

With Tod forgotten, a series of teleports brought him to the others who’d moved out of the way of the flanking fire, except for Miya, who still hid by Delta’s car. He could hear Undead members screaming something about a feral attacking. Good job, Little Bird. Skulker heard the sounds of doors slamming shut. The gunfire from the flank dwindled.

“They’re running. Let’s get moving,” ordered Nomad.

Through the opening in the fence Skulker could see Olivia menacing the fleeing gang members. The tires of one car squealed as they began peeling out of the area, barreling down the street. They’re leaving in a bit of a hurry. They must have sent a message to the flanking cars, because they weren’t shooting anymore. Everyone began shooting at the fleeing Undead, making them panic even more. They left two people behind. Three, if Tod didn’t make it to them. Should have finished him off. Skulker and the rest pumped the back of the last car to leave full of holes.

Membrane had been left behind. He was busy trying to light the rag in another cocktail when Nomad shouted at him to get down. Membrane, who’d been focusing on the nearby Olivia, turned their way as the three of them sprinted towards them. Miya sat injured where she’d hunkered down for the firefight, and Rob went to cover her. Where’s the golem?

Membrane laughed and continued with his lighter. The rag caught the flames. Great. Before Membrane could do anything with it, Nomad shot him in the gut. Skulker teleported, caught the bottle before it hit the ground, yanked out the rag, and threw them in opposite directions from anyone. Holy shit, I caught that.

“Stay down,” said Nomad, catching up and shoving the business end of his rifle at Membrane.

Olivia and Delta joined them. Skulker kept lookout, to see if any more Undead felt like messing with them. He only saw the other guy they left behind. Still alive, too. It appeared neither side suffered any fatalities. Delta joined Nomad in keeping Membrane down, though no one wanted to get close to the man to fully subdue him. Whatever, it looks like the fight’s knocked out of him anyways.

“Be quiet, you,” said Delta to the laughing and crying Membrane.

“Nononono, you didn’t see her did you?” managed Membrane. Why the hell are you still bothering with that suit? Smells and looks awful, and there’s a lot of bloodstains on it. A lot.

Skulker looked around. A fire dying out in the parking lot. Buildings and shacks devoid of people. Olivia, Nomad, and Delta standing around the downed Membrane. The BAT with its windows shattered and bullet marks all over it, Gears leaning over Miya by Delta’s car. Skulker keeping watch. That was it.

“I don’ see anyone other than us,” said Skulker. “Who’s he talkin’ ‘bout?”

“No, you idiot! No. Her.” He jerked his head towards Olivia. He met her eyes. Then he spasmed, arched his back and screamed. His scream turned into more unhinged laughing.

“What about me?” asked Olivia quietly with an unreadable expression.

Membrane laughed on, heedless of the guns in his face. “She doesn’t… Bwa ha ha! She doesn’t know. HA! She doesn’t remember,” he gasped out, shakily pointing at Olivia with the three fingered hand, the other hand applying pressure to the wound in his gut. Membrane dissolved into maniacal laughter again. I think this fucker looks at all the bad shit in your past. And lives it, if he’s gone insane because of it. That probably means he sees someone’s trigger, if they had one. Holy shit, hold up…

“What are you talking about?” demanded Nomad.

Membrane said, “She blames the universe, but no. NO! Only a small part deserves it. Very small.”

Let’s see if this works. “An’ wha’s the worst?” asked Skulker.

“They’re one and the same! Don’t you see! They’re one and the same! She’s looking for both, good and bad.” Oh come on. No riddles. Just say what you mean. That’s just maddeningly vague and unhelpful.

“Both? What do you mean both?” asked Nomad. Skulker shot a quizzical look at Olivia, standing there without moving. Membrane just laughed hysterically. That’s getting old now. Stop it.

“You ever read the Bible, kiddos?” asked Membrane in mock seriousness.

“Yes. What does that have to do with anything?” said Nomad. Membrane just laughed.

Delta holstered her pistol. “I don’t think we’re going to get a straight answer out of this guy,” she said. “Think anyone will care if we tie him up here? He’s definitely wanted, so the cops might pick him up eventually.”

“That’s probably a good course of action,” said Nomad, his attention on Membrane not wavering. “You should probably go check on the other three guys we left in the back of the truck, too. See if they’re alive or ran off or what.”

“Gotcha.” Delta set off in a light jog towards the BAT.

Olivia still looked like she was in a state of shock. Maybe we want to hold on to this guy, see what he knows. The early morning sunlight began asserting itself across the sky, they wouldn’t be able to move around in relative secrecy any more. We’ll deal. No one walked in the streets, no doubt a combination of being in the shantytown and the recent sight of a major shootout.

Membrane still chuckled softly to himself. Nomad shifted, glancing at Olivia. Membrane took the opportunity to kick him in the balls while grabbing at the barrel of the rifle, pushing it to the side so that the reflexive shot on Nomad’s part hit the ground. By the time Skulker brought his own gun to bear, Membrane was already on his feet and rushing towards him. Fast fucker, aren’t you. Skulker’s shots went wide as Membrane rammed into him.

“Where do you think Heather is now, Ben?” Membrane whispered to him. Ehhh?

Skulker’s pause allowed Membrane to hit him in the head (again, damn it. I don’t have infinite brain cells you know) and take off in the other direction. As Skulker recovered from the explosion of pain, Nomad went into liquid form and gave chase. He recovered from that ball kicking like a champ. Or does the physical pain go away when he’s liquid? Olivia still stared at the spot where Membrane had laid. Don’t break down now, Olivia.

Nomad suddenly backed off, Membrane had held onto his lighter and set part of his suit soaked in alcohol on fire. Jesus. What? Skulker took aim. Shit. Should I shoot him? That might kill him. We probably want him alive. In that moment of hesitation Membrane slipped out of sight.

Skulker ran to Olivia. “Hey,” he said, reaching up and shaking her shoulder, “He’s gettin’ away. Olivia?” No response. He sighed.

Skulker teleported to Nomad, who’d returned to human form and curled up. Nope, he did not recover. Skulker overtook him, and closed in on Membrane, still partially on fire. A car, one of the Undead’s, if the fresh bullet holes were anything to go by, pulled up. A door opened. Membrane tossed off the burning suit jacket and jumped in. The car sped off. Goddamn it. He fired off a couple shots after them on general principle, but it was no use.

Nomad shakily ran up beside Skulker. Skulker said, “He got in a car, they came back for him. He’s gone.”

“Fuck,” said Nomad, sounding short of breath. “Let’s get back to the others and get out of here.” Two fights tonight. Damn I’m tired.

“You alright there, bud?”

“No. I’m trying not to throw up right now.” It took everything in Skulker’s power not to laugh. It is a rare occasion where nut shots aren’t funny. Then again, they fucking hurt.

Nomad went back to a liquid and flowed back; Skulker just teleported. I ain’t jogging back. Olivia had finally come around, and was currently lifting the fence off of Delta’s car. Delta was patching up Miya as best she could. Gears was angry.

There was one the Undead member still left behind. He’d been shot, and crawled a small away. Gears walked up to him. “You FUCKERS,” he shouted, kicking the guy fully onto the ground. He cried out in pain, the kick must have hit one of his injuries.

“You shot up… my fucking… truck… you worthless… son of a bitch…” he shouted, punctuating every few words with a stomp to the guy’s head. The guy wasn’t moving. If he was, he’d be a fucking zombie that was immune to headshots, because he doesn’t have much of one left. That’s some scary shit right there.

“FUCK,” roared Gears to no one in particular.

“How are we looking?” Nomad asked Delta as that happened.

“Miya needs some real medical attention-”

“No, I’m fine,” managed Miya, cutting Delta off.

“Shut up. No you’re not,” scolded Delta.

“Can she be moved?” asked Nomad.

“Yes. I. Can,” said Miya through gritted teeth, standing up to prove her point.

“Fine, be that way,” said Delta. “Two of the Undead we captured are dead. The last one left is that angry guy. How did they find us and how did Membrane escape you three?”

Skulker looked over to Olivia, who stared in horror at Gears, covering her mouth with both hands. Now what?

Nomad said, “He knew… stuff. I’m guessing that’s his power. He knows I don’t like fire. I’m not sure about Skulker though.”

“Good job, jackass,” said Delta condescendingly. Fuck off.

“Hey, fuck right off, hon. Nomad’s right. He knew shit.”

“What do you mean by that?” asked Delta with no small amount of skepticism.

“It means he drags up all the bad shit in your past and uses it against you,” said Miya. “Secret shit you’ve never told anyone. Didn’t we tell you about him?”

“No, apparently not,” said Delta.

“Apparently. We can talk about this later. We need to get out of here. Think your car is working Delta?” said Nomad.

She got in and started the engine. “Yep.”

“Gears, outta here,” called out Skulker.

“Gotcha,” he called back, sounding much more cheerful. I bet that was cathartic if nothing else.

“Hey, Olivia,” Skulker called out next. She jumped. “You alright?”

“Sorry, yeah,” she said, looking away. Bullshit. Whatever, we’re leaving.

“We gotta go. You head back to the lair, yeah?”

“OK. Sorry.” You say that a lot. She jumped up and took flight.

He took the driver’s seat of the BAT, while Gears got in the back and Nomad took shotgun. Miya and Delta got into her car. “Where we headin’, Nomad? Sent Olivia back to the lair, but we got two bodies and a dude to offload.”

Nomad sighed, squeezing his eyes shut momentarily. “I’ve got a place in mind,” he said. And we’ve got to figure out how they found us so quickly, and why Tod and Membrane are with them, and why Tod’s in fighting shape. Never was a fan of mysteries.

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Contract – Collaborative Restructure

“You got a look at ‘em?” asked Skulker over the comms, sounding unconcerned about the possibility of another cape stumbling in on their teammates.

“Um, no. I smell fire though.”

“Oh, well then,” he said, sounding much more alert. “Could be Guardsman. Stay on your toes. You catch that, Nomad?” He’s that vigilante guy. Chris and Ben mentioned him before, I think. The footsteps hadn’t stopped, still marching purposefully towards the building the rest were in.

She poked her head over the edge of the building to get a closer look. From behind she saw a heavyset man in an army jacket and matching pants. He had what she guessed to be a black ski mask over his head. The occasional flame broke out at random points on his person, curling upwards almost lazily before dying out after a few moments. His clothing remained untouched by the fires. Olivia also noted a pistol, flashlight, and knife at his belt.

“Nomad, Skulker, he’s on fire. I don’t think that’s good.”

“Nope. Tha’s Guardsman, an’ tha’ means he’s here for a fight.”

“Figure out what he’s here for,” whispered Nomad in Olivia’s ear, sounding like he was hurrying.

“He’s probably lookin’ for the Undead, same as us. Don’ worry ‘bout the rest, Olivia. They’re doin’ fine, by the way.” Just as he said that, shots rang from the building below. “At least they were,” he added. “New plan, you go talk to him.”

Over the comms, Olivia heard from Delta, “You guys missed one.”

“Fuck, sorry ‘bout that,” said Gears.

What? No. What if this turns into a fight? I’m not too good at public speaking. Guardsman had nearly reached the building at this point. “I don’t think- I mean-”

“Olivia, go,” said Skulker with far more calm than Olivia had ever heard in his voice before. “I’m on standby to start shootin’. It’s gotta be you. Don’ worry, you got this.” His voice cut off.

Olivia got up. What am I supposed to say? She jumped off the roof and started gliding towards Guardsman. OK now. Um… don’t be threatening. I should land in front of him so I don’t surprise him. Just… ask him to go away? Warn him?

Olivia kept one ear out for any sirens that may be approaching. That was her job, more or less. One thing they didn’t want to happen was for the police to barge in. Of course, we talked about using the police to break the gang up, but Ben pointed out that it’s hard to assassinate someone in the MHU headquarters if they arrest Nevermore.

Olivia landed off to the side just as Guardsman reached a door. Fires broke out on him with greater frequency, intensity, and duration than what she’d seen before. That’s probably bad. He turned sharply in Olivia’s direction, one hand resting on his pistol, the other shimmering with heat. Doesn’t matter. Say something to keep him from accidentally shooting someone. Or roasting. Say something.

“Um… Hi?” I’m an idiot. “Please don’t go in there right now.” From where she estimated Skulker to be came a sharp crack and the shattering of glass from the target building. She heard loud voices and straight up shouting from the inside.

“That guy, that guy!” said Nomad. Focus.

Guardsman gave a mirthless chuckle. “Why not?” he asked with a gravelly voice. “You with them?” He jerked his head towards the building. The flames disappeared from him, though his ready stance remained unchanged.

“What? No. We’re um… we’re taking care of them right now, so you… you know… don’t have to do anything, or go in there at all.” Did that get the point across? I think that got the point across.

He watched her silently for a couple moments. Instead of flames, now tendrils of frost flowed downwards off of him in the same pattern as the fires. No frost accumulated on his clothing, though his breath showed as a wisp of frost in the air. “Who’s this ‘we’? You and the rest of your little wanted buddies from before?” More gunshots from inside. More talking over the comms, she managed to ignore it this time.

Please don’t fight. I really don’t want to fight. “Yeah?” That was a mistake wasn’t it? “So, you know, we’re on the same side, so we really shouldn’t-”

The temperature around Olivia dropped, cutting off whatever she was about to say. A lot. Not just my imagination. It’s physically a lot colder all of a sudden. Olivia began backing up, which proved wise as Guardsman drew his sidearm and roared, “Don’t you lump me in with you scum!”

Olivia turned 180 at that and kept moving away in a sort of running crouch (Trying to make myself a smaller target. Ha ha ha.) down the street, looking for something to put between herself and the violent gun wielding vigilante. I know I’m bullet resistant, but they hurt, and it’s super cold near him. Putting distance between herself and Guardsman brought the added benefit of a warmer ambient temperature. Car. Good enough. She ducked behind a car parked on the side of the street as Guardsman fired.

Olivia poked her head up to look through the rear window of the car, ducking down again as that prompted him to start shooting where her head was. Car window glass shattered, sprinkling on Olivia. He advanced, slowly circling around her position for a clear line of sight. If I had a gun I could keep him from doing exactly what he’s doing now. He held the pistol in one hand, the other in a fist. Didn’t Skulker say to hold a gun two handed if at all possible? She thought back to the general firearm lecture he’d given her before in the lair before they had left.

“So if you’re talkin’ to a military type, a gun refers to artillery. Jus’ like a ship is a ship an’ a boat’s a submarine, but tha’s another story. This,” he held up Chris’s rifle, “is a rifle, not a gun. Obviously, if ya say gun everyone knows what you’re talkin’ about, but if you wanna sound like you know what you’re talkin’ about, refer to what it actually is.”

He continued, “Now the big thing to remember with these is accuracy, an’ a large part of tha’ comes from how ya hold it. A pistol held one handed ain’t gonna hit shit if ya don’ know what you’re doin’. It’s possible, so keep tha’ in mind. If ya hold it sideways, you ain’t gonna hit shit, period. If you’re doin’ tha’ retarded dual wieldin’ thing… jus’ don’ do that. Jus’ don’t. A two handed grip with a pistol gives ya a lot more stability.”

“Um, Ben? I’m not going to be shooting anyone.”

“Yeah, but it’s the more ya know. Good information can save yer life. If someone’s holdin’ their pistol sideways, you now know that they’re a fuckin’ idiot an’ don’ know what they’re doin’. Extrapolate!”

From what Olivia could tell Guardsman’s aim wasn’t bad; most bullets landed about where her head had been. Trying to kill me. Of course. No no. Don’t get angry. Tell the others. Tell them something. She couldn’t think of what to say. Guardsman fired again. Out of the corner of her eye frost streaked off to the side of the car she hid behind. He’d shot a column of freezing cold air, trying to flush her out. It certainly got a lot colder. Again.

Need to make this stop. Get away. How? If she broke cover now he’d just shoot her or freeze her. Or both, simultaneously, because how dare he settle for only one? She only held the controller for her comm unit, used to change frequencies, volume, and setting up private channels. Only this car. Wait a minute. She grabbed the back bumper and yanked, pulling a chunk free.

Guardsman stopped to reload, not bothering to take cover. Olivia flung the bumper in his general area, then took off in the other direction. Moving slower than I should. It’s too cold. She heard a curse from Guardsman as he ducked under the bumper part, dropping the new magazine he had in his hand.

She climbed as high up as she could, as fast as she could. Guardsman began firing again. One bullet grazed her tail, the rest missed completely. A column of frozen air, moving absolutely silently, hit one of her wings, nearly sending her plummeting back down to the earth as her wing nearly froze. She regained control, and moved to put a building between her and Guardsman, leaving him shouting general profanities at her back.

Now somewhat removed from imminent danger, she took a shaky breath and remembered everyone else. She listened to the comm as she circled high above where Guardsman futilely searched for her, staying out in the open away from any possible ambush sites.

“Two left. Skulker, one’s going for the north door,” said Delta, speaking hurriedly.

“Gotcha. Movin’.”

“Nomad still keeping the clown and tattoo fuckers busy?” asked Gears.

“Yep. Ooh, that was brutal. Our guy’s got a gun, he’s waiting at the door. Gears, you got this?” said Delta, the de facto leader when Nomad was otherwise occupied, apparently. It sounds like they’re doing fine.

“These walls are just drywall, right?”

“Yep,” said Miya.

“I go in one side, golem through the other?” asked Gears.

“Sounds good,” said Miya. I hate not really having a sense of what they’re doing outside of what I get from what they’re saying.

“Go. Three rooms that way. Miya, you keep these three down. I’m helping Nomad. And anyone heard from Olivia? Heard some hissing and she’s still not responding,” said Delta.

“I’m here. Sorry. Guardsman attacked,” said Olivia.

“Fuck. He’s hostile?” asked Delta.

Didn’t I just say that? “Yes.”

“Where is he now?”

Olivia looked down. Guardsman backed up towards the building the rest were in, still keeping a watchful eye on the sky and his surroundings for Olivia, pistol at the ready. No fire or frost clung to him. Good thing I can see you from this height, even though you apparently can’t see me. “Coming towards you.”

“How you holding up?” asked Delta.

“I’m OK.”

“Think you can keep him out? A burning building is not a fun building.”

I don’t… yeah. Keep him away from the rest of you guys. “I think so.”

“Alright. I’ll send the first available people your way as soon as I can.”

“I can help,” said Miya.

“No. You’re injured and your golem’s helping Gears. Olivia, watch yourself, OK?” said Delta.

“OK.” How am I going to do this? Guardsman had almost reached the door, and Olivia was above him. She dove. Her first instinct to put herself upright and land on top of him with her feet first. No, that’ll kill him. She extended her wings, cutting her speed. She landed, righted herself, and struck before Guardsman reacted. A knee to the gut, and claws digging into his arm as Olivia tried to disarm him. The pistol, not the arm itself this time. See, I’m improving.

Before she could make any headway, Guardsman got bitterly cold again. She released his arm, and Guardsman reflexively punched her in the jaw with his free hand. Both cried out in pain. Guardsman because he drove the relatively delicate instrument that is a human hand into what amounted to the corner of an unyielding brick wall. Olivia because his fist nearly flash froze her jaw where it hit her. Both backed up. Ow. Face is numb. Bad.

Focus. The temperature around her dropped rapidly. Not to the extreme cold around Guardsman, but enough for Olivia to notice. He holstered his pistol, to be fair it hadn’t been doing him any good, and lunged towards her, going low. Just shoot him. Just stab him. I’m having a hard time caring right now. She raked her claws on the side of his face as he rushed, and immediately regretted her decision as ice began to accumulate on her hand once she made contact. He rammed into her stomach anyway, wrapping around her in a bear hug. Cold. Moving too slow.

The cold shock nearly made her collapse. She kept her balance and grabbed at him again. This time it was to wrench the man off her, as he held her to bring her down with the cold. She’d probably learned how to more effectively counter this kind of thing from Ben, though the details of exactly how escaped her at the moment. With a roar she broke his grip and shoved him back. He came upright, and she drove her foot in a kick to his chest.

Headless of the cold, she followed up, swinging the non-frozen hand. Guardsman barely backed up in time, though that might have been more from residual momentum from the kick. Olivia smelled blood. Calm down, she thought, even as her follow through brought her close enough to shoulder check him. She lowered her shoulder and rammed with as much force as she could muster, diminished by the cold as it was.

Guardsman took the blow with as much grace as he could muster, rolling to the side to get out of her way, even for a moment. He began struggling to his feet again, one hand to his chest where Olivia kicked him. Olivia did not follow. Stay back. Calm, not angry. Even though he did try to kill you. Please stay down. She became aware of the buzzing in her ear again. I need to stop blocking that out. They might have something important to tell me.

At that point the door closest to them of the warehouse burst open, and Gears and Nomad rushed through, shotgun and rifle respectively at the ready. They immediately aimed at Guardsman.

“Fuck off,” barked Gears.

“We don’t have a problem with you, but we will if you keep this up,” said Nomad. “Leave.”

Guardsman, tired and bleeding from several cuts on his face and chest, spat blood. With a sneer in his voice he said, “You little shits broke the law. You think I have any sympathy for you?”

“You think my shotgun slug’s got any sympathy for the structural integrity of your face?” shouted Gears, aiming at Guardsman’s head. “It don’t, so get the fuck outta here cuz you got ten seconds before I put a bullet in ya. Ten, nine…” That count is a little faster than actuality.

Grudgingly, Guardsman got up and began to limp away as fast as possible, casting a couple glances over his shoulder on his way. That was sudden. Whatever, he’s going away now.

Once he disappeared from sight, Gears shivered and said to Olivia, “Cold out here. He got ice powers?”

“Yeah,” said Nomad, still watching where Guardsman had disappeared. “Hey, Skulker.”

“Yeah?” asked Skulker over the comms.

“You watch the area, keep an eye out for Guardsman in case he tries to come back. I doubt it, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful.”

“You got it,” was the response.

“Let’s get inside. You look frozen, Olivia.”

“Yeah. Cold,” said Olivia, flexing her hands to get any kind of warmth back into them. “I heard Miya was hurt. Is she OK?”

“Yeah, she’s fine. Small caliber bullet to the shoulder. We’ll fully patch that up later but for now the bleeding’s stopped,” said Nomad as they moved to the open door. Hey, the air is already warming up.

They filed into the warehouse Nomad bringing up the rear. Gears said cheerfully, “You alright, Olivia? Lookin’ kinda chilly. Face is blue an’ everythin’.”

“Sorry. I’m fine. Just warming up now,” she said, rubbing her hands together for friction. My face is blue?

“You’re just in a t shirt and cargo pants,” he commented.

“I’m fine,” she insisted.

“If you say so. I’m gonna get the BAT,” he said.

“Alright,” said Nomad. “Keep an eye out.” Gears nodded and headed in a different direction.

Olivia looked around at the warehouse. Old drywall, corrugated tin, and other scavenged or stolen materials made up most of the walls. I thought they’d be able to afford better. Posters of various gangsters with bandanas and hoodies in videogames and movies dotted the walls. The signs of the recent raid were evident. A smear of blood, a couple bullet casings, and a completely collapsed ramshackle wall. Other than that, it was very similar to the lair, stained concrete floor and everything.

They came to a sort of common room. Delta carried out bags of cash and drugs from a side room. Miya sat on a table, swinging her legs beneath her. She seemed close to happy, actually, despite the bandages on her left shoulder. Must be magic painkillers or something. Her golem, short a few bones, slowly patrolled in front of the five boys on their knees in handcuffs. All wore gags, and shied away as much as they could from the golem whenever it swung towards them. Something smells bad.

“Final count?” Nomad asked Miya.

“Those five and the two dead ones. And that other one that got away from you and Delta.” Dead ones? I know there were gunshots, but…

Nomad grimaced under his bandana. “Think we can get what we want out of them?”

Miya snickered. “Of course. Watch.” The golem lunged forward towards one. He let out a muffled yell, jerking backwards. The golem stopped two inches from where his face had been. “Isn’t that right?” she called out to the five. Miya, that’s messed up.

“Load them up in the truck once it gets here. We’ll take them to that place Skulker found. Delta, anything from the police?”

“Nothing so far, but I only give us about five minutes before they start coming here,” said Delta, not stopping what she was doing.

“The Watch?” asked Nomad.

“Same deal.”

Miya hopped down from the table. She walked forward and squatted right in front of a different captive. She flicked his forehead. “Hey, you ready for a ride.” He simply glared back at her, as if to make up for the fact that he flinched when she flicked him. She flicked his forehead again. “Come on. No response?”

OK. Enough. “Miya, stop,” said Olivia.

Miya looked over at her with a smile. “Why? This is fun.” She looked back at her captive and flicked his forehead again.

“They’re tied up. How is that fun?”

“Cause it is. You going to give me shit for it?”

“I’m sorry, but no. Don’t do that.” Seriously?

Talking over Miya’s response, Nomad said, “Miya, go watch Skulker’s back. He’s on the roof. I’ve got these five. Olivia, help Delta out moving that stuff.”

“What? Come on…” said Miya.

“Now,” said Nomad with finality.

Miya glared for a moment, during which Nomad calmly stared back. Grumbling, Miya complied. Olivia went to help Delta.

They took the cash and the prisoners, leaving the building before the police arrived to inspect the reports of gunshots and parahuman violence. Olivia flew, and Nomad made sure it was Gears guarding the prisoners in the back of his truck. The bones of the golem lay inanimate, next to Gears. Across from him lay the five. Olivia knew they would be interrogated, but after Miya, she wasn’t sure she like where that was headed.

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Contract – Trickle Down

Chris waited at the restaurant. A far nicer restaurant than he was accustomed to, in fact. He kept himself from fidgeting with the cuff of his suit jacket sleeve. I’m pretty sure I can pull off the three button look. You’ve done it before, don’t get so nervous. The restaurant itself was a fancy affair, owned by some retired football guy. Dim lights lit the interior, classical music played faintly over the hushed conversations of the patrons nearby. I will never afford anything on this menu. Ever. Oh well. I still have some leeway before the credit card company has grounds to legally break my knees.

Chris had arrived slightly earlier than the agreed upon time. Is that what you’re supposed to do? God damn it. Stop second guessing yourself already. Be professional. Even if you’ve fucked up, don’t point it out yourself. Finally, the prospective employer walked up to the table. Chris stood, they shook hands, and began exchanging general pleasantries. A server came around to take their orders. He finally caught the client’s name: Jeremy Schrader. He knows about that new Iraqi warlord? That hasn’t hit any of the major news networks yet.

During this time, Chris observed the man who wanted Chris and the gang to do…something. They were supposed to work out the details sometime soon. The man himself was rather tall, which would have been imposing if Chris himself was not nearly the same height and had a good thirty pounds on him. But not all command and intimidation comes from physical presence.

Those eyes are creepy. There was something off about Jeremy, the way he carried himself, and the fact he didn’t blink. He’s not going to start something in the middle of a crowded restaurant full of important people. Chris maintained a polite tone during their conversation, regardless of his unease. Their food arrived. We need a job. This job.

Finally, they came to the matters that had brought them there in the first place. During what Chris judged to be a good break in their conversation discussing movements of the Siberians along the Chinese border, he finally said, “So, what exactly was it you wanted me and my team for?”

In the same flat, matter of fact voice he’d been using all night, the other man responded, “There is a group of young men from where I live, in the southern part of Westward. They are involved in unprofessional activities. They call themselves the Undead. They’re a bunch of punks who engage in all the things high school boys think make them badass. Carjacking, armed assault, and the like. They do it for kicks. That assault is against the homeless, more or less. Usually I wouldn’t care but my son has joined them. Well, in all honesty he was one of the founding members.”

Chris listened attentively as Jeremy continued, “Recently some criminal by the name of Nevermore has taken over, and is goading them on to more shameful acts. My line of work means that I am not home enough to discipline my son properly.” I very probably shouldn’t ever ask about this kid’s mother.

Evidently some part of Chris’s thoughts made it to his expression, because Jeremy elaborated, “I would handle this myself, and normally gang activity is not my concern, but combined, I figured a couple ex cops and mercenaries who took down a large scale terrorist organization could take care of some kids so that I can focus on other matters. So I’m paying you to kill their leader, Nevermore, and punish the other members. Teach my son a lesson that this isn’t a game or movie. Obviously if it comes to it, I don’t expect you or your team to get yourselves killed holding yourselves to a no kill rule, so that is on the table as a last resort. I don’t care about the means by which you do this, the end must be that the gang has broken up and Nevermore is in a grave. If you are arrested or are otherwise caught up by the law I will not help you.”

Chris nodded silently, that much was to be expected. These first jobs weren’t going to be the most glamorous. Jeremy paused. Is he wearing a wig? That seems awfully out of place for a guy like this. Chris kept his eyes firmly locked with Jeremy’s after noticing that. He continued again, “I anticipate being gone for the next ten days or so. You have that long if you want your pay. Any questions?”

“Who is your son again?” Better know who not to accidentally kill.

“That does not matter. Like I said, he needs to know he isn’t playing games anymore. If he pays for his mistakes with his life, so be it.”

“But I’m still assuming you don’t want your house trashed, so homes and families should be left out of it.”

“That should not be a problem. I kicked him out three months ago.” Cold motherfucker aren’t you? Wait, how would you discipline him if he’s not in your house anymore? Chris suddenly got the feeling that this Jeremy was not to be underestimated. Jeremy continued, “If he does come back, and it is unavoidable… well, the things in my house are just objects. They can be replaced. I do not care about the families of the others.”

“Just wanted to make sure. Less chance for screw ups that way.”

Jeremy nodded again. “True.”

“Do you have any inside information on the Undead that could be helpful? Favorite hangout locations, members, M.O.s, powers, and so forth?”

“The gang is formed exclusively of young men from wealth. Too much time, too much money, and too little attention from their parents…” Jeremy trailed off for a moment. “Like all gangs they are not racially inclusive, if you need any more reasons for a clearer conscience. Women are objects to them, they always hold a pistol sideways, etcetera etcetera.” That actually did something to help silence Chris’s conscience. He felt a bit uneasy at the thought of killing just to discipline some rich guy’s kid, but on the other hand, these kids sounded like real pricks. “Nevermore is actually fairly powerful in the right conditions, but he lacks the motivation to go higher than where he is now.”

Chris could think of no more questions (Amanda’s good at research), and so the time honored mercenary tradition of haggling over the final price began. I hate haggling, but there’s no one else to do this. Amanda was always busy, Miya would probably lose her temper, Olivia would just stammer, and Rob/Ben would… Do something really stupid and lose us the contract before it’s even signed. He still wanted nothing more than to get away from Jeremy as fast as possible. Creepy. Just creepy.

Chris managed to negotiate a decent price, within the ballpark Jeremy gave him when he first contacted Chris. At least I think it’s decent. I’ll probably look back on this and want to smack myself, but the deed is done. The two men finished their meals, shook hands again, and Chris happily parted ways with the other man.

Once in his car he texted the group at large, then began to drive towards the lair.

***

He arrived twenty five minutes later, having stopped to quickly change at his apartment before heading out again. And Olivia’s missing and no one bothered to tell me until just now. He walked in, and was surprised to see a new (new in this case meaning new to the building) table and chairs. Rob’s stuff crowded Amanda’s in her corner of the building. I’m going to have to deal with that. Keeping Amanda and Ben off each others throats remained an eternal struggle.

Ben and Rob dressed exactly the same (why did I expect anything else?), and grinned exactly the same when he first walked in. One of them, the one next to Miya, had a faint black eye. Chris did a double take when he saw that to be sure.

After the general greetings he reached the head of the table and pointed the black eye, asking, “What happened to you?”

Rob/Ben smiled ruefully. The other smirked at the injured brother. Miya said to Chris, “They think they’re funny. I kept getting them mixed up, so I punched one in the eye. That one’s Rob.” She jerked a thumb towards the one with the black eye.

“She likes me,” said Rob, deadpan. Before Miya could respond, he said, “You want any barbeque, Chris? It’s probably a bit cold, but you can just nuke it. We got a microwave now.”

Chris eyed the table they sat at. There were indeed bags of barbeque off the side of the table, next to where the three had a poker game set up. “No thanks. Already ate.”

Ben said, “Poker then?” He reached across the table to poke Miya in the cheek, not taking his eyes off Chris. She slapped his hand away, then tried to punch him in the ribs when he didn’t move out of the way fast enough. Rob, sitting to her side, poked her in the other cheek while Ben had her distracted.

She glared at him. “I can still tell the two of you apart if you have two black eyes, Rob.”

He immediately moved to sit next to Ben, taking his money and cards with him. “Fine. I’ll just sit here next to Ben. He doesn’t punch me nearly as often.” He stopped suddenly. “Her nickname is Pokey now, by the way,” he announced to the world at large.

Ben nodded sagely. “Agreed. So it is written, so it shall be.” Miya sighed, fists clenched. Now now children. Settle down.

Chris hesitated. He could play a mean game of poker. However, he couldn’t drum up any enthusiasm at the thought. “Nah. That restaurant the client wanted to meet at cleaned me out. Don’t want to lose any more money today.” That wasn’t technically true, but Chris had no physical money with him at the moment.

“If it mean anythin’ to ya, it was for a good cause,” said Ben.

Chris snorted, then asked, “So, where is Olivia?” No more beating around the bush.

The three of them froze, exchanging glances. Chris felt some anger rising. Did you idiots do or say something? Because I will throttle you all if you got her captured by Marcus again.

Rob began hesitantly, “Well, she didn’t tell us…”

Miya said quickly, “We finished talking to Amanda a little while ago. She said the police don’t have her.” Just then, Chris’s phone buzzed, as did everyone else’s.

The text from Amanda read, “She just showed up here. See you soon.

He glanced up at the rest. Genuine relief showed on their faces, so he decided to let that issue slide. “You get the same text I did?” Never hurts to be sure.

“Yeah. Olivia’s with Amanda.”

“Good. Now why did she leave?”

Rob winced. “We just explained this to Amanda. We don’t know. She didn’t say anythin’ other than she was goin’ to get some fresh air. That’s all.”

He studied them suspiciously. “Did you say something, or some things, unintentionally? People usually don’t leave home for no reason.”

Ben said, “Tha’s our best guess, actually. Problem is we can’t think of anythin’.”

Chris sighed. “OK, what’s your best guess? What did you unintentionally say?”

All three shrugged. Nothing? After a moment, Chris said, “I don’t think I need to say that this shouldn’t happen again.” Something caught his eye. “Also, what did you do to that chair?” He pointed to one with sanded down nubs where the backrest should have been.

“Oh, yeah. Olivia said she hates backrests, so I figured we could jus’ saw it off for her,” said Ben. You thought about someone other than yourself? I’m impressed… And I’m kind of being a dick aren’t I? Just take a mental step back.

Externally, Chris said, “Alright.” The conversation trailed off. I’ve never been too good at conversation anyways.

Then he got a text from Amanda.  “We might be a while.

Any trouble?” he sent back.

Nearly instantaneously she said “No” and that was all. Might as well make myself comfortable. He leaned against the wall as Miya, Ben, and Rob resumed their poker game. He pulled out his phone. It kept his mind off of more depressing subjects.

***

After a while, Amanda and Olivia finally walked into the lair. Chris watched Olivia cautiously. She’s not flinching, doesn’t seem angry at anyone. She actually spoke up and said hi. But she probably doesn’t want to talk about up and leaving in front of everyone, so deal with it later. He met Amanda’s eye, she mouthed ‘later’. Everything’s under control then. He trusted Amanda to be rational if nothing else.

As everyone settled in, Chris said, “So our first job is to beat up a gang of rich white brats with powers and kill their leader. Any complaints?”

“I like it!” said Ben immediately.

Chris continued with the contract details. He leaned forward, his arms on the white table before him. Everyone actually stayed quiet until he finished. It’s like Christmas. Even more silence as everyone digested what he said.

Olivia spoke up first. “So, we’re supposed to kill someone?”

“Yes, he was very specific about that part.” Olivia looked somewhat uncomfortable, so Chris added, “That doesn’t mean you specifically have to do the deed, but going back on the deal now would be very bad for us.”

“Yeah, you don’ have to do it,” said Ben. “I have no qualms with pullin’ the trigger. Do you Rob?”

Rob grinned. “Nope. How ‘bout you Miya? Or Pokey, as you are now alternately styled.”

“If we get paid for it then fuck it, sure,” said Miya with a shrug. Amanda rolled her eyes at the proceedings, but Chris noticed she simply slouched in her chair, not sharing Olivia’s concerns. I mean, we’re not working for the most upstanding member of society, but he is basically paying us for vigilante justice with a few caveats.

“These are the kinds of people you saw mugging other people, Olivia. I’m not expecting this to end in a bloodbath, but if you don’t want to do this, that’s fine.” He kept forgetting that they were basically dragging a civilian into a firefight and expecting her to be perfectly fine with it. To be fair, this particular civilian shrugged off bullets, but there’s more to combat than simple power.

Ben said, “Come on. Irregardless-”

He was cut off by Miya on one side smacking him upside the head, and Rob on his other side punching him in the chest.

“No, we talked about this,” said Miya.

“Irregardless isn’t a real word,” said Rob.

“It is if ya use it enough,” managed Ben defiantly, with a somewhat shaky smile.

“No,” Miya and Rob nearly shouted simultaneously.

Holding his chest Ben muttered, “Right in the nipple, god damn it.”

“You deserve it,” said Rob. To everyone else he said, “Sorry ‘bout that. Please continue.”

Chris waited for Olivia to say something, but nothing came from her. He continued, “Are there any questions on the contract?”

“Yeah,” said Ben in a more normal voice. “How much does he care ‘bout the other ganglets besides his kid?”

“Absolutely nothing. He couldn’t care less if they lived or died. He just wants the gang gone and doesn’t care how.” Preempting Ben’s next thought, Chris added, “Obviously we’re going to have to keep destruction of property to a minimum, so just setting off a bunch of bombs at them will probably get us into more trouble that that’s worth. But not requiring the rest of the gang dead was his way of making this easier on us, and the contract more doable.” Ben adopted an air of self-righteous disappointment. I’m going to ignore you now.

Chris continued, “Any more questions?” There were none. I need to ask that more often, because no one has any once I say that. Then again, everyone expects me to lead, even though I don’t think I have any idea of what to do. “Now before we get too far into how we’re actually going to get into this contract, we need to get our own building in order. Ben, you said you were looking at other places for us to rent while construction happens here?”

“Yeah, I found a couple places. They’re… they’re OK, I guess. I’ll shoot what I got right now off to ya later, but I’m gonna keep lookin’ for a bit. Of course, we’re gonna need some money flowin’ before anythin’ is truly on the table.” Well, he said he was going to look, and he looked.

“Alright,” said Chris as Olivia said, “Excuse me.”

Everyone looked at her. She’s spoken up twice in the same conversation. “Yeah?” said Chris.

“I have a question.”

“Shoot.”

“Um… you know how we had to leave Ben’s apartment really quickly that one time, because they could track us to there?” Chris nodded. “What’s stopping the police from finding us here the same way?”

Amanda spoke up before Chris did. “Nothing. They could. It wouldn’t be easy, but if they were truly actively searching for us, they could. The reason they haven’t is because we aren’t on the government’s shit list right now. They found Ben’s apartment easily enough, mainly because we drove a van owned by the police to there. Also, I hamstrung their main tracking stuff when Marcus crossed me, which gave us time for the Freedom Fighter business. We finished that up before they could make any real headway in finding us again.”

Chris nodded in agreement. “Good question. We shouldn’t have any illusions about our secretiveness. Or lack thereof.”

“So how are we going to make our fortress thing then? If we aren’t so secret.” asked Miya.

“Rob, any thoughts on the matter?” said Chris. Let’s see what our resident builder guy has to say.

“Yeah, been thinkin’ ‘bout that. Might have to contact The Company.” Rob paused as everyone stared at him blankly. “Do any of you know what The Company is?”

Everyone shook their heads, then Miya said, “Wait, are you talking about The Guy at the Place with the Thing?” What?

“Yes,” said Rob excitedly, adding, “I’m pretty sure.”

Chris decided to speak up. “Right now what you’re talking about could literally be anything.”

“Yes,” said Rob hurriedly. “That’s exactly the point. The Company isn’t a real company. It’s the general name for a kind of regional syndicate. Apparently the one in Arizona is The Guy at the Place with the Thing, but I don’t know what it’s called here in Colorado. Every city, at least in America as far as I know, has one. They ain’t unified, but they keep in tabs with one another. An’ they could be anyone. The one I used out east was composed of a local credit union, the owner of a grocery store, and three truck drivers. Those are just the ones I knew of. An’ they do…things. You ever use ‘em, Miya?”

“No. Either we needed them but didn’t have enough money, or didn’t need them ‘cause we had enough money,” she answered. That’s a weird catch-22.

“Wait,” said Ben. “Is tha’ that Fight Club kinda thingy where everyone in the know knows ‘bout it, but no one talks about it?”

“Maybe,” said Rob hesitantly. “My point is, they can either do nearly anythin’, provided it ain’t violent. If we had millions to throw at this problem, we could get them to make the base. If we had even more millions, they could do it in complete secrecy, and we’d have insurance for it to boot. If you need somethin’ moved, they can do that. If you need to obtain somethin’, they can do that. If you need information, they can do that. An’ if they can’t, they know someone who can an’ get you into contact with ‘em.” This isn’t sounding very legal.

“How is it they are in business all over the country?” asked Chris.

“They’re very careful. Very. If Johnny Law ever finds out about their deals, it’s the outside party that always takes the fall. Any investigation finds a perfectly legitimate company on the other end who had no idea they were in business with criminals, or nothing at all. Usually. They don’t have a standard operating procedure for anything. If one of the members of The Company is found out, the rest severs him or her from The Company and replaces them. But the true power is the fact that there is always a Company. In ‘93 alone five Companies were rolled up by the government. Literally within a week five new Companies took their places. The police sometimes keep tabs on ‘em, but they’ve kind of stopped caring. Sometimes they take out a Company for good press if they really need it.”

“I remember hearing something about this,” said Amanda. “Some kind of conspiracy.”

“Kinda, yeah,” said Rob. “Gotta think of it like a hydra, except instead of world domination, it’s money they’re after. There’s probably similar things abroad, but I’m speaking in the capacity of someone who’s never left the country. And disclaimer: almost all of what I’ve said is educated guessin’.”

“But why aren’t they ruling us all right now?” asked Amanda.

“Dunno. They could be, but I doubt it. No one’s that competent. An’ what they do can be expensive. It’s kind of a natural monopoly, so there’s always only one in any given region, an’ they’re good at stompin’ out competition. They’re kinda territorial towards one another.”

“Alright,” said Chris. Let’s get back on track now. “What exactly are you going to do with this company?”

“So, I’m gonna contact the liaison guy I worked with back east. It’s the only way to get in business with a Company, be referred by a friend or business partner who they know. He’ll get us into contact with the local Company, an’ they’ll give us our own liaison for here. All jobs an’ money exchangin’ an’ stuff will go through him. I got a good reputation with The Company, at least out east. So what I’m gonna use ‘em for is stuff that’s really hard, if not impossible for us to do on our own. As of right now, that means moving all the dirt so as to not arouse suspicion.”

“How much is this going to cost us?”

“Don’t know. It’s dirt, so moving it is really super low risk. The main thing is volume, so I’m gonna have to do some calculations and get everything figured it out. Been workin’ on it, don’t worry. I’ll send them what I want with an estimate how much, they’ll give me a cost. Another thing is obtaining materials, like concrete so the thing don’t collapse on us. Also, Amanda, I need to talk with you at some point.” Rob pointed at her.

“What for?” she asked.

“We should set up a dummy construction company. That’ll cut down on our costs to The Company, an’ they’ll use that to get stuff for us. They got access to a lot more manpower than us. I’ll prolly need help on that. My old gang had someone to do that, I never did it myself.”

“OK, so long as you never use the word ‘prolly’ in my presence ever again,” she said reluctantly.

He grinned. “Deal.” He turned to Chris. “That’s all I got.”

“Alright,” said Chris. “Anyone have anything else?” No one did. “Now let’s get to work on the job at hand.”

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