The water lapped against the side of the battleship in time to slow movement of my boots against the wooden deck. No tourists were supposed to be about; the ship was officially closed for renovations. But what were they going to do but open it up for us? We’d brought a crowd of people who were just now milling around the familiar sights, the downed war planes, the dozens of artillery mounts.
The museum of airplanes next door was filling up, a long line winding behind it as the museum employees (who has naturally been a part of the audience, this close to the delicate bits) decided that a day off wouldn’t stop them from serving everyone there.
Museums were delicate operations, and getting more revenue was important.
I leaned over the deck and peered down into the murky waters below, breathing in and out. I’d done it.
I’d beaten Colton.
Intellectually, I knew I could do it. Knew how easy it would be. Knew he was just a man, and we were both just mortals.
All of my rhetoric about heroes being mortal had been just rhetoric until the moment he slumped to the ground and pepper spray tickled against my skin. When I realized, in a spectacular and guttural way, that we were both mortals, and even someone as unstoppable as Colton could fall to a simple trick.
It redefined so many things in the moment. Eyes wide, staring down at the lapping waters below.
“It’s hard to try to be something you’re not,” Rebecca said, sliding in next to me. “Hands.”
I looked around for the hero.
“No, Your hands. Let me see them.”
I turned to face her and gave her my hands. She looked over them cold, clinical. “Fractured one of your fingers with that punch. Good job.”
She handled it and it felt like electricity wound its way down a nerve and then back out, a hot flash, and then nothing left at all.
“Be gentle this time,” She said coolly, but didn’t move from my side. She peered into the depths of the water far below.
“I will,” I promised.
She paused, and shot me a look that reminded me of a great bird, predatory, inquisitive. “Did you figure it out after all?”
“I didn’t have to fight him at all, did I?”
“The fighting was important,” She dismissed. “What you did at the end is more important. Too many people think that you have to fight evil face to face, but the best heroes are the ones that don’t leave a mess in their wakes.”
“Eradicators?” I guessed.
“Kill squads,” Rebecca laughed. “But brutally efficient. Excelsior can slice through enemy attacks, Faraday nullifies them. If they can get through that, they’re too dangerous to keep alive. If they’re stopped by that…”
My eyes slid over to her, my head throbbing at the word kill squads. Didn’t want to believe it, and yet…
I’d done my part in the kill squad, hadn’t I? I’d killed Negalli.
I’d been down this moral path before. I killed because he was stopping me from protecting people. Was it any different from Negalli?
It didn’t matter.
“If they’re stopped by that?”
“A trial in the association. Often televised. Sent to prisons,” Rebecca’s eyes slid over to where Dauphin island was, and I followed despite not wanting to see.
Despite the week or more it had been since I’d been there, I had expected there to still be smoke rising from the ashes of the base. “Like Dauphin island?”
Rebecca laughed. “If I had to guess, The Cuban Patrol and Negalli teamed up to take on this area. A double cross by the Cuban Patrol to take out the prison and kill every last son of a bitch in there,” Her eyes were glassy as she spoke, delicate as smoke.
“Anyone you remember?” I asked, immediately knowing it was a stupid question.
“Genetics,” she muttered. “How many months trying to determine why they went sociopathic? Why they disregarded the world around them, those delicate bonds that keep me? Why they can ignore ethics, and you can’t, Gale? And it is all gone. Every experiment I did to further the world. Everything I hadn’t finished, gone,” She laughed and tapped the side of her head. “But… I can remake it. The theories are still all there, if the proof isn’t. My way of helping the world.”
I blinked at her. “Your way of…”
“Colton can get into a fight and protect people all he wants,” Rebecca said. “And we need people like that. He has a role. But you’re not a fighter, are you Gale?”
“I can play the part when I need to,” I said, stubbornly.
“I wish you weren’t born from Hurricane. What secrets of the universe remain locked because you did not choose to be like me?” Rebecca asked, quietly. “That you do not have an interest in peering into the depths of things…”
“What is Fafnir?” I asked, directly.
Her lips twitched. “You know I can’t tell you that. You’re not an A rank.”
“Are you?” I asked.
“Once upon a time,” Rebecca turned away from me. “In a place called Mexico… It’s interesting, isn’t it?” Her eyes fell upon the people touring the war planes and the instruments of death pointing into the gulf. Their placards and labels describing what conflict they’d been utilized in, their sides painted in pretty eye catching colors.
“The world didn’t really change when heroes were introduced. Became more chaotic, certainly. Less safety in the average place. But there’s such a sheer mass of people… Look at this ship.”
The USS Alabama bobbed slightly in the water, the slap of the bay against it echoing like a drum.
“This ship was built before heroes. An arms race unlike the world had ever known, under tight circumstances… and this was before heroes, before accursed genetics and before the accursed conflicts that followed. Before cult leaders swarmed Europe and the Emperor of Japan and…” She shook her head. “And it is yet another monstrous tool of war. Us against them, good and evil. Just perpetuating the exact same mistakes over and over again.”
“And what would you have us do instead? If there’s evil, something needs to fight it,” I said, stubbornly.
“There’s an interesting concept in psychology. Not my field of choice, but equally valid, in its own way. When one fights against someone, they grow away from the direction you’re in. Are we not perpetuating evil upon the world by fighting against it? No, no, we should take different approaches.” She smiled, and the mask of her face shifted into something more recognizably human.
“Instead of making Colton an enemy, I should make him into my friend. Instead of demonizing…” I looked at her, and remembered her description of the sociopaths she studied. “I should try to understand.”
“It’s a classic proposition. When you use a gun to destroy the enemy, you are down a bullet and an enemy. When you make the enemy your friend, understand the things that created it, you can nullify the situation entirely, and create something new. A 2 for 1.” She laughed. “Though there are many who would disagree with me. Call me naive.”
“You’re not naive,” I said, thinking of Patrickson. “I don’t like that thought though.”
“Evil is never just evil, you know,” Rebecca said. “Even in this world of heroes and villains, everyone has their motivations.”
“Faraday slew his brother. Negalli swore to avenge him.” The bone witch turned to lean against a turret designed to tear apart airplanes. “In a way he succeeded, didn’t he?”
I swallowed. “He did, didn’t he?”
“There no need to look like you swallowed such a bitter pill,” Rebecca said. “I’m just trying to help you think again. How long have you tried to be a hero? Pomp and circumstance and sacrifice?”
I couldn’t meet her eyes, just staring into the water below. I could name every quote that the school had fed me. Every rule to live by.
But they’d never really meant anything until I’d lived them. Was I supposed to have some innate understanding of them before hand? Would that have helped with Gunze, understanding how the battle for Korea went, or the mexico conflict, or the particulars of power expression?
How did my knowledge interact with goodness at all?
Or was knowledge on an entirely separate axis? Did Rebecca work for a net increase in knowledge in the system rather than concern herself with good and evil, chaos, order? Just increased information to everyone involved?
That in of itself was admirable. My first instinct was to get more information, get more support.
But did that make me different from Colton? Colton, who followed a razor sharp code of morals, who screamed and shouted and demanded respect with a southern drawl?
How was I any different, trying to support everyone at once? How did that make me better or worse?
“It doesn’t,” Rebecca muttered.
“It doesn’t?” I surfaced from my thoughts.
“Being smart doesn’t make you better. Being strong doesn’t make you better. Arbitrary deviations from some accepted genetic standard doesn’t make you better, either. We’re all equal, and everyone should do their part to make things better,” She quirked her lips into a smile, showing teeth sharpened by years of use of her power. “At least, that’s my take on it.”
“Thanks for the hand.”
“You’re welcome. Your friends actually sent me up here to say they have ice cream.”
Colton had an ice pack over one eye where the bruising had started to spread, and his nose was trashed from Osteor fixing it, but he gave me a goofy, red faced grin as he wiped at his face to get the last bits of gas from his skin.
Like getting punched in the face and gassed had only made him happier instead of angry.
What the hell was a Colton.
But I guess it made sense. You could take a loss as a loss, and let it damage your flow, or your could plan around it and turn even your loss into another opportunity.
Had he planned out his loss as well? Taken both outcomes into account?
“Jackass!” he shouted happily.
Hands slammed him back down into his seat before he could stand up. She didn’t even look at him, her invisible hand did all of the work. “Down, idiot.”
“Jackass, really?” I asked. “Also, why are you so happy? I beat you, so shouldn’t you show more respect?”
“Naw,” Colton said, beading his lips with a napkin. “I like a good fight. Crystallizes everything. Just fists and fighting, and all the knives I can help myself to. It’s good for stress, good for dealing with everything. And as for respect? You need someone to second guess you!”
“And you just happen to be filling it?” Rebecca asked, joining us. Her arms held a platter covered in fried cheese. She bit into one quietly.
“I’m like a knife, I take my opening and I sheath in,” Colton bragged, his voice shifting in its lilt.
Hands paused for a moment, and then gave him a glare.
I rolled my eyes and took a seat across from him. “Did you have to say that like it was innuendo?”
“It’s only innuendo if you say it’s innuendo,” Colton grinned.
Rebecca raised an eyebrow at him. “In addition to your inferiority complex, you’re also a masochist? A winning combination.”
Colton rolled his one visible eye. “Like you’re much to talk, Bone witch.”
“Rebecca,” She reminded. “I’m not on the association’s payroll, let me have my name back.”
“Sure, sure,” Colton dismissed.
“She did just heal your nose,” I reminded.
“That I can be grateful for, but she already bought her meal,” Colton said. “And Hands demanded she pay for her own.”
“And me?” I asked, looking at the table.
“You, you get a milkshake,” Colton slammed the one next to him on the table.
“Thought this one was yours,” I blinked a few times.
“Naw, I’m intolerant,” The knife master said.
“No hard feelings about the fight?”
“How can I have hard feelings about that when I walked into the fight with an agenda to be smart, and you walked in with the same agenda? I’m fairly sure I cracked a rib in there,” he looked to Rebecca. The doctor blinked owlishly, then shook her head.
“Just bruised, I checked.”
“Actually,” Hands said, looking up from her fries. “What are we going to do now?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“No,” Colton said, waving a hand in front of Hands. (or, to follow Rebecca’s request, Gabby, though the name seemed strange after calling her Hands for so long.) “That sounds like a business thing.”
“We are in the business of being heroes,” Hands reminded.
“No, we’re in the business of having lunch, and then probably having dinner,” Colton cut in. “We had our fight, I lost, and now we have our fun, and then we take care of business later.”
“In all seriousness, we’re going to need to go support Fairhope, I’ve been getting emails from them for ages, just hadn’t had the resources available,” I cut in.
Colton glowered at me, then his eyes lit up. He snapped his fingers. “You know what Fairhope has?” I stared at his face and wondered what would really put an end to his sureness.
But he had to have had training in keeping himself centered for his ability. Perhaps he spun all situations into pros and cons, and went with what felt right?
“A criminally depressed caste of full time authors struggling to pay the pills?” Rebecca asked.
“No, it has-” Colton started.
“Condos and retirement homes?” Hands asked, giving me a look.
“No, it has…” He waited a moment. “It has-”
I cut him off. Teasing was fine, sure. Was this what real friends were like? “An evacuation shelter for the major cities in Alabama?”
“That sounds like work again,” Colton said, pointing at me. “And we’re trying to find a way to stay sane, not slave ourselves to some facility.”
“It’s not really slaving yourselves if you signed up for it,” Rebecca said, flatly. “And you did sign up for it under the association.”
“I’m supposed to be a Shell Alliance member, myself,” Colton said, “But no, Fairhope has a fantastic beach.”
“A beach?” I asked, blinking.
“I don’t think we have time to take a beach day.”
“Not a full one, obviously, but we’re going to be in Fairhope anyway, so why not?”
“I really don’t think we can do that…” I started.
“You don’t get to talk about what we can do, you gassed me and punched me in the face.” He paused, thinking it over. “And then you kicked me.”
“You deserved to get kicked.”
“And I also deserve a trip to the beach. Do you know how often they let us go to the beaches on Dauphin island? Once every three months! On good behavior!”
“So almost never in your case?” I asked.
Hands stared at Colton for a long moment, then gave me a helpless look and a shrug.
“Why would I even bring you?” I asked, as the last line of defence.
“It’ll be good for morale if we’re hanging out with each other after that. Means that they should be able to get along despite their fights and differences,” Colton finished, holding out a hand. “So you can always be my squad leader.”
“This means you’ll back off when I tell you to, you understand. Leadership is leadership.”
Colton’s hands shook and he looked pained to agree to it, but he didn’t withdraw the offer.
I shook on it.