I stood at the edge of the farmer’s market and stared off into the distance, where the mighty mobile river churched into the bay. Produce was on display, and a flock of D rankers, led by Hands herself, who had earned the stripes I’d placed on her shoulder, were separating it into kits so we could hand them out one by one.
Needed to be efficient if I wanted to keep this place running. Mobile wasn’t that big of a city, but…
Lots of hungry mouths, and the gears turning society were starting to crumble.
How had a week passed so quickly? Numerous minor crimes as people sensed the cooling of tensions. A few capes hospitalized with gunshot injuries.
Nothing I could do about those but tell them how well they did to stop them.
“So we’re going to be short this time?” I asked, shooting him a look over my shoulder. The cape licked against the wind.
“Just a bit. We’re down a truck,” The shipper said, flatly.
“Don’t you have a spare?” I asked, curiously.
“We lent it to the evacuation efforts over to Fairhope,” His fingers twitched slightly against his hip. “Haven’t heard anything from Fairhope in a bit. Do you know anything about it?”
“Only what the radio tells me. I’ve been busy trying to keep this place afloat,” I laughed. “After this, I’ve gotta meet up with the power plant to make sure that someone is running them fuel.”
The worker went slightly pale. “I hadn’t even thought of that. Is someone willing to do it?”
“My name still means money in this area,” I said. “And I’m willing to keep throwing it around with IOUs until this place is back on their feet.”
The worker paused, and pursed his lips.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“See, there’s a bit of a problem. We’re down a truck, yes, so getting the food here is going to be harder. But… we’re also short of what we were expecting to bring here.”
My gaze snapped back to him rigidly. “Thieves?” I asked.
“Thieves. Someone is helping themselves to the produce before we get it into the truck,” The worker sighed. “Is there any chance you can spare another cape or two to watch the farm?”
I turned and looked over the operation we were working here, splitting off fruits and vegetables into serving sizes and portion sizes, and watched Hands direct it all. She was at least C Rank material, if the tests hadn’t overlooked her.
“I’ll see what I can scrounge up. What about two I already sent you?”
He hesitated for just a moment. “They’re doing fine… I’d just like a few more helping hands.”
I shot him a long look. “If there’s something wrong, you need to tell me. I can have them moved to other farms, other places.” I laughed. “There’s not exactly a shortage of places that need help.”
We weren’t near one of the harvesting seasons, so we had to make do with what side crops were almost ready to be taken up. Half of the food on display here were from store houses. Food banks. A week in and those who were already susceptible to food shortages were showing up in droves.
The grocery stores were already out of anything but dented cans. Their open and empty shelves were haunting to look at, and the workers inside milled about vacantly, trying to figure out what to do.
Communications were still mostly down; the roads were like Carnival without the police. Without the government of Alabama: the government buildings were still mostly tucked away inside of the Montgomery containment zone, and there hadn’t been a signal out of the place in over a week. Just a continual broadcast to report to the Fairhope shelter.
So we’d moved on from being the law to also running the infrastructure and being a charity services. Keeping everything in check.
Pins and needles, but it made me hellishly nervous. They were all listening to me. Was it my name? Did they just look for a leader in times like this? How did they all scurry around like ants trusting my words, when they could just think for a moment and realize that I didn’t have any inherent control over them?
“It’s nothing,” The worker said. “I think they’re getting tired helping move things around. You sure we’re getting reimbursed for all of this?”
“Absolutely,” I said, lying through my teeth. If this went on for too long, then there was no telling exactly how much money I’d be able to spread around to make it work. My family had been paid well for decades of service in the area, but we weren’t paid anywhere close to the average economy of even a decently sized city like Mobile.
The costs from having shipping slowed in the area were already larger than I wanted to think about. The costs of running anything were larger than I wanted to think about.
“Alright. Sorry to take up your time, Gale,” he said.
It sounded hollow to my ears, but that was just me. It had to be, considering my gaze was already drifting away and towards the graveyard.
I shot him a surprised look. “Eh?”
“You must be busy with all of the hero stuff,” The worker said vaguely. “It’s a hell of a thing you’re doing here.”
How guilty could he make me feel before I gave in and just told him I was planning on milking his supplies dry and hoping that the crisis would be over before the reaper came for his due? How guilty would I get before I admitted the obvious?
My teeth clicked together and I gave him an earnest look. “I’m not doing much. Just pointing and telling people what to do. You all would’ve figured it out.”
The worker shrugged helplessly. “I have a feeling there might’ve been a bit more breakdown before that happened. I’m just spreading the good cheer and regards from the others, anyway.”
“Right,” I said. “If that’s all?”
“Of course,” The worker turned and walked back to his truck.
Hands caught my eyes from across the sea of heroes and smiled at me. I caught her grin and smiled right back.
Then it was back to work, no matter how much it felt like busy work.
I’d managed to avoid Colton for this long. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could manage it.
It wasn’t a power up, but it also wasn’t my imagination. Perhaps it was as Osteor said when I confronted her about it; an increased sensitivity.
Perhaps it was something changing inside of me, to give me just something I could even pretend was an edge. Something I already had, but never thought to use.
I cursed myself for not figuring out.
Under the weight of the hero economy, martial arts dojos had rooms where would be heroes, and lower ranked heroes could practice in. There was a spot in the downtown area that I enjoyed, though the building was almost hidden under grime, marked with foreign insignias and looked about as trustworthy as the average dive bar. In and among the training dummies… a few of them marked up like villains long since captured and dealt with, I sat and focused on the world around me.
The gentle tug of the breeze against the objects around me…
It pushed and pulled with the buzz of the AC. It tugged around like wind through a mill.
And for a brief, brief moment, I could feel it all at once, like it was touching my skin.
Could sense the world around me like an invisible set of fingers were brushing oh so delicately across every surface.
My father had once talked about this sensation. Of being one with the air whistling across his skin, how he knew first hand who was still in the fight, just by tasting the air.
On some level, it made me smile to think that maybe, one day, I might be up to his potential.
But as it was, I was an unaugmented human with delusions of grandeur, wrapped in a purple cape.
But it seemed like the city needed that more than it needed me in a place I belonged.
Of all the heroes that might’ve joined me that day, I could’ve filled up most of my fingers before Mary would’ve been on the list.
But she showed up, her skin returned to a healthier sheen, and stared at me in the center of the padded pillars rimming the room. “You come here too?”
“Yeah,” I said, looking at her. Could, just barely, if I focused, feel the brush of air against her skin from across the room. See how muscles twitched under her skin. But it was so faint.
Not useful. Not yet. Needed it to get better. Needed it more than anything else. Needed to never be in that lab again. Never have anyone else curled up on the floor.
Ironmarrow shut the door behind her and sat next to me. Old enough to be my mother. “I need you to be truthful to me, Gale.”
I breathed out and tried to relax. The nervousness obliterated what sense of the air I could draw forth, leaving me back in just the meat of my body. My eyes fluttered and I turned to look at her. Even breathing. Relax.
“Sure,” I said, faking a smile as I looked over at her.
Any number of things whirred across my head. Was this the critique I’d been waiting on, on the mission a week ago? Was this the shoe I’d been waiting on so desperately to drop so I could return to just being Gale, the useless?
“I know what game you’re playing,” Ironmarrow said, and my lungs felt like they’d been filled with glass. Vacuum sealed. Ice cold.
I tried to speak but my lips were numb and my throat was sealed. Thoughts raced in reckless incoherence. Couldn’t get past it. Couldn’t move past it.
“I know you’re just a D class,” she said, pointedly. “And I’m going to support you anyway.”
Air whistled back into my lungs like the hand of god. Patrickson stood over me for just a moment, then he was gone, leaving me back in the training room, wind whistling across my finger tips.
“Why?” I whispered.
“I don’t agree with you,” Mary said. “But Excelsior put his trust in you. It means you’re probably the one best suited to lead this place… and besides that…” her eyes flicked over to the window.
I followed her gaze and found her minivan. Two small childish faces poked up, visible through the windows. People worth fighting for.
“I can hardly knock over your leadership without offering to replace you. And that’s not an option. So you’re the best figure head we got.” Her face bore a bit of a sad smile, then it twisted into a slightly more hostile look. “Don’t mess this up again. I can and will withdraw my support. But… I have another request.”
Twisted my arm to get me to accept what she was asking for. But what could she possibly want?
“You’re backing down, aren’t you?” I asked, giving her a look.
“It’s not you, it’s really not. And it’s not the work, either.” Mary laughed, taking a halfhearted swing at the training figure in front of her. It moved far farther than even Gale could get it to move. “It’s just… While I was up in that building, I took a moment and thought about it. How much I had missed the feeling of being bullet proof.”
“Then…” I said, realizing what she was talking about. “You thought about the people in your life who aren’t bulletproof.”
She chuckled. “Yeah. I gotta go and protect them. So I’m asking you to assign me to the school systems. Set up a rotation for all of the retired super heroes to protect them.”
My mouth fell open and my cheeks flushed red.
I’d forgotten about the school systems. Heroes… didn’t get the same education system as civilians. It had been too easy for me to forget about the public education system.
Then my eyes snapped open wide with horror and the scope of keeping the city alive hit me. How many systems did we need to create? How many did we need to simulate?
“Don’t get me wrong,” Mary said, flashing me a conjoling smile. “I was already doing it. Just make it official, put the experienced people next to the children.”
“It… hadn’t even occurred to me that the schools were still running,” I muttered. “What else am I forgetting?”
“The city is still running, Gale,” Mary said, politely, but firmly. “But only just so. You need to delegate, or things are all going to fall apart.”
Not where I thought the conversation was going. My empire hadn’t crumbled just yet, but…
“Is that all, Mary?” I said.
“Mary? Ha,” she laughed. “What happened to all of your deference to higher ranked heroes?”
I blinked at her like an owl.
“Nothing. Just wanted to coordinate with you.” Mary punched through the head of a dummy and moved to leave. “Oh, and Gale? You’re going to need to come up with something to do if someone calls you out on your powers. You looked like you were about to faint.”