Making sure I’ve got my mask on, I walk into my room, where Doc’s got Echo laid up.
She’s not the chic vigilante in a cool costume anymore, but the rubble of that composed girl. Her eyes are red, her skin blotchy, and her left leg is in a cast. There’s a bruise on her right arm at the shoulder, and purple discoloration along her jaw.
Remise is at my bedside, holding her hand. “Hey, Gabe.”
“Home Run,” Echo says.
“You okay?” I ask.
She shakes her head.
“I’m sorry, I should have been there.”
“Nobody knew,” Remise says. “My best guess, he followed Pyre to their hideout and took out that Sidestep fella.”
The one who’d suffered the migraines. He said he could slip through doors but he wasn’t specific. “That… that was Sledge, that day at the Street Devils?”
“Ah think so,” Remise says.
“Have we warned them?” I ask.
“Already did, they cleared out, waiting for us to tell them what’s going on next,” Remise says. “Good think you insisted on masks.”
“Yeah, though not everybody wore them,” I say. Carapace just straight took hers off. She’s too young for this kind of stuff.
I shiver, thinking that Sledge was that close to us the whole time. That they listened in while we planned our attack. Good thing, then, that we didn’t really form any concrete plans. “Where’d you get the cast?”
“One of those emergency clinics,” Remise says. “The kind that takes cash under the table.”
“OPI’s moving tonight,” Echo says, her voice hoarse.
“Tonight? That soon? Do we know where he is?” I ask.
“Second Ward,” Remise says. “The Bay Biters found it out.”
“And then Sledge…” I shake my head. They wanted to know when the attack was coming. Smart. They’re a cunning enemy. Dangerous, if they could kill almost all the Biters.
God, I didn’t expect this to get that deadly. We haven’t even fought Pandahead or the Hammers, and we’re already down four people. “I’ll call Iso. Let’s get the band together. We’re still riding on OPI’s coattails for this.” I kneel down next to Echo. “Thank you for your help. I’m really sorry about what happened.”
Echo locks eyes with me through my goggles. “You make sure that bastard pays.”
I nod, a solemn vow I absolutely intend to keep.
My apartment is very crowded, with Lugs and Mil-dot in the kitchen, Epione, Drone, and Saw Off on the couch, and while Doc isn’t here, he’s going to be at some point, bringing our merry band up to a total of nine people. The trio on the couch are zonked out on video games, and normally I’d never expect them to get along, especially with Saw Off in the mix. That’s the power of puzzle games, I guess.
My phone rings. Bedevil. She went to that review when I left.
I answer the phone. “Hey, are you okay? How’d the thing go?”
“Hey, dad,” Bedevil says. “It went okay.” She sniffles on the other end of the phone.
She’s worried someone might overhear. Or she’s drunk, but I didn’t see her drink anything before she left this morning. “You sound pretty broken up.”
“They… they’re gonna have me go to rehab for a while, dad. I’m wrapping up some cases I’m on tonight, and then I’m headed off.”
Rehab. That means I won’t see her again for a while. I’ll miss having a powerful superhero on my side that can tell me what’s up with OPI, but beyond that, I don’t want her to go, even though I know that’s selfish. She needs rehab.
I just don’t want her to go.
“Okay,” I say.
“I’m sorry,” Bedevil says. “I shoulda been better. I’m trying to be.”
“You’re one of the best.”
There’s a few seconds of silence, and I notice Lugs leaning his head into the hallway to look at me. Mil-dot shoos him back into the kitchen.
“Do you have anything planned tonight?” Bedevil asks.
“We know OPI’s moving tonight.”
“Mhm,” Bedevil says.
“We’re going in while Panda’s distracted, and getting Maisa out of there, before the fighting gets too crazy.”
“That’s good,” Bedevil says. “I’m glad.”
“Are you going?” I ask.
“I’m gonna be busy tonight, yeah.”
“Be safe,” I tell her.
“I will. I gotta go, dad, I have to pack. I’ll talk to you later, promise.”
Bedevil sniffles, and then she’s gone.
Can’t think about that right now. I close my phone and put it in my pocket, and take my mask off. “Drone.”
“Yep,” she calls from the living room. The game is paused, they turned the sound off to listen in.
“Call Iso. We need to get ready now. Whatever’s happening is happening tonight.”
The group scrambles into getting ready, a sudden flurry of activity that betrays their ease just moments ago. They were as tense as I am. Lugs and Mil-dot already have duffel bags ready, they leave first. Epione and Drone head out together a few minutes later, staggered so nobody on the street gets suspicious when a bunch of people leave at once.
Saw Off’s struggling to get up from the couch.
“Sorry, Saw, but you’re still too hurt,” I say.
Saw Off scowls, and crosses her arms. She doesn’t reply to that, but instead turns her head away to huff. After some pouting, she says, “Just pisses me off. I feel so useless.”
I sit down next to her. “It’s not your fault.”
“Yeah it is, I got plugged at Parlor because I was bein’ reckless.” Saw Off frowns, an expression that doesn’t quite fit right with her face. “Cooped up and it’s my fault.”
“You got plugged helping us topple Pandahead. If anything, you’re a hero.” I put a hand on her shoulder. “Sometimes we need other people to fight for us, and that’s okay. We can’t do everything. I promise you, when you’re better, you’ll be front and center again.”
Saw Off stares at me, still frowning. That frown thaws into an evil grin. “I better be, Gabe Babe.”
I pat her on the back and stand up. “Keep Echo safe, in case anything happens.”
Remise comes out of my room, and we leave together, headed toward her mate’s warehouse. We were planning on meeting there anyway because the Devils’ hideout was really cramped, but now we have the added benefit of meeting somewhere Sledge hasn’t seen yet.
God, chills everywhere. They were right there with us. I look over my shoulder to make sure we aren’t followed. What if Echo wasn’t Echo? What if Saw Off was Sledge? What if Remise isn’t Remise walking next to me?
“That Echo girl’s pretty nice,” Remise says. “D’ya think it’s too soon to ask her out?”
Nope, that’s Remise.
“She just lost her whole team,” I say.
“She’ll need a new one,” Remise says.
“You want her on the Underground?” I ask.
Remise nods. “I saw her fightin’ Sledge right before I stepped in. Girl’s a banshee.”
“Man, I gotta demask for someone else, too,” I say.
“Ye should be gettin’ used to that by now,” Remise says. “When ye gonna live without the mask?”
I don’t know the answer to that. I wish I could now. “I mean, I could get arrested.”
Remise shrugs. “Could get arrested anyway.”
She’s got a point.
Iso, the Devils, Lugs, Mil-dot, Epione and Drone are all waiting for us in the warehouse we’ve used to train this last week. There are some minor blemishes from our training matches… okay, marks, not blemishes. I’ve left burn marks on a few of the junker cars, as well as destroyed a windshield or two by icing them over. In my defense, Bedevil made me do it.
“We don’t have a lot of time to prepare for this one,” I say to my new team. “Let’s walk through what we know.”
Iso nods. “From my inside guy, we know that tonight, OPI’s moving on the Second Ward, using various heroes with location powers. Behind them are powerful fighters, fliers, and support heroes to bring Pandahead down. As of now, the heroes involved are Krater-” Everyone groans at his name- “Hasuji, and Bedevil from the Houston Heroes. All of the Harris Hawks are in, Snow Owl, Gyrfalcon, Jettison, Afterthought, and Trainwreck.
Iso shows us a tablet with pictures of the people he’s describing: “The Ministers, led by a guy named Empyreal with some weird powers like sensing when someone’s broken a law nearby, and getting stronger while pursuing a case.” Empyreal’s got dark hair and a permanent scowl, and he wears a detective’s trench coat. “His team consists of G, who can double or half somebody’s gravitational pull at a touch.” A young dude in an OPI tactical suit with ceramic armor, a lot like Hasuji’s. The next two are girls, one in a stylized office dress, and the other in a get up resembling an EMT. “Casanova, the one in the business wear, can hypnotize and charm anyone who meets her eyes, and Lily, the one from emergency services, can sense malevolent intent around her.
“Finally, we have Listener Four, led by Atomic Clock, who can apparently see a few seconds into the future. His team has Abyss, whose gaze turns people comatose, and Aaron, who is somehow invincible.” Atomic Clock is in a classic white-black spandex suit and a yellow cape, Abyss is in an all black suit with a weird red mask over his face, and Aaron is in a t-shirt and jeans.
“Pretty meaty teams,” Lugs says.
“Yeah,” Iso says. “They aren’t taking chances on Pandahead. They know he’s bad news.”
“Anything about the Hammers?” I ask. “Do they know about Sledge?”
Iso shakes his head. “The only intel they have right now is Pandahead has Aspect, which is how they figured out where he was. The detectives working with OPI triangulated where Panda was hiding by sightings of Aspect throughout the area. The guy was running small errands for Panda.”
“What about the Thermos?” I ask.
“No, and that really concerns me,” Iso says. “They’ve no idea about that, only that Pandahead has a power that stimulates fear and mass hysteria. They believe it’s eye contact that starts it, so they’ve got orders to avoid eye contact with him.”
“That’s probably as good a precaution as they’ll get,” I say. “Do we have any game plans? Can we keep track of everything with the drones like Parlor?”
“Nah,” Drone says. “OPI and FIS are in on this, which means air space is gonna be choked with their drones. I can still hop around CCTV and give you updates, it’s just not gonna be a lot.”
“I can watch,” Mil-dot says. “Get me a good perch, point me at a building, and I’ll tell you what’s inside it.”
Okay, so we’ve got strong types in me, Remise, Carapace, Lugs, utility powers with Dustdevil, Asperity, and Epione. “What if we split into two teams, a point team and a behind team. Each one has at least two fighters and heavy hitters, and one utility power. Point team could be Remise, me, Asperity, and Dustdevil, and behind team is Carapace, Lugs, and Epione?”
“We still don’t know where he is,” Iso says.
“No, but that’s not gonna be on us this time,” I say. “Our job is to move as fast as possible. When they do find him, the point team breaches his hiding place and clears a path to Maisa. Epione will take any powers she can on the way, and she’s in charge of making sure we don’t get on the bad end of Panda’s thermos.”
The Street Devils have been pretty quiet. I look over at them. “Any input? Thoughts?”
Carapace gives a little shake of her head. “N-no! Just, uh, great plan, man!” She throws a thumbs up at us.
“Yeah, just jazzed to work with you,” Asperity says, with a finger gun aimed my way.
“Ye worked with me for two whole years,” Remise says. “Where’s my fuckin’ red carpet and bashful schoolgirl routine?”
“Well,” Dustdevil says, “You’re Remise, and he’s…” She gestures at me.
Wait, wait, do I have my own fan club now or something?
I bite my lip, because now I’m gonna freak out.
“Let’s stay on task,” Iso says. “No disagreement on the plan?”
Okay, man, now I feel like I gotta say something cool to hype everybody up or something. Something Flashfire would say if he were here. But I’m not charismatic or dudebro like he is, I can’t just talk like that.
So, I settle for: “Okay, gang, let’s kick Tim’s ass.”