In the dark of my dusty office the light was out. I’d’ve replaced it but it meant sitting up and doing it instead of staring at the chain of emails littering my page. Reports in from around the gulf area of things in the dark, of people disappearing.
I didn’t need the coffee to wake up. The pictures said it all.
Our patrols simply weren’t working like I needed them to. Why would they? I had a handful of teenagers and a rapidly dwindling team of heroes at my disposal.
“The radio broadcast did the job, you think?” Specs asked, the secretary eyeing the side of my head.
I snapped my head up from a particularly… photo and shut the laptop. “Specs. Just who I needed to see.”
“Did you?” Specs cocked her head to the side.
“Hoped to see. Did you have something for me?”
Specs flicked her eyes towards the front of the building. “We got a girl with a shotgun out front. Hands says she’s a friendly, so we’re making her coffee while I get you.”
I stood up straight as a rod and ambled over, ignoring how my head swam. I’d need more than a day between Dauphin island and I before I was over it.
Maybe I’d never be over it.
I drug a hand across my eyes and rubbed as I walked down the hallway and stifled a yawn. Colton shot me a look from his desk, and the hero he was meeting with gave me a similar look. I didn’t pause to give them anything in return, because our offices simply weren’t big enough for me to use that excuse and Cassandra was already waiting.
A proper uniform that gave me the shudders; military urban camouflage, grey and blue, and enough weapons and things stapled to her to take out the average suburb without meeting heavy resistance.
Hands offered her a cup of coffee as Cass’s eyes snapped over to mine. “There’s the hero of the hour,” the foreign soldier said, sipping at her coffee. She took up a position leaning against the door frame. “I should’ve phoned ahead, but…”
“Haven’t been around long enough to hear the radio broadcasts?” I asked.
She shrugged. “That’s more command’s job. I don’t care for the music here, anyway.”
I paused, sliding out of what little comfort the hallway provided, and drifted over to her side. Hands shot me a look for a moment, I could feel her eyes raking across the circles around mine, then quietly shook her head.
“What can I do you for?” I asked.
The red-skinned girl paused for a moment, her eyes settling on the event board, map well marked and drawn upon. “Well. If you really are the leader around here, I’ve come to grab you and take you to my boss. A face to face, if you will.”
Hands smiled politely but her fingers twitched, squeezing down on the side of her laptop. She shook her head again, but I hesitated instead of following her advice. “And he can’t come meet up here?”
“Area’s not declared secure yet,” Cassandra said, lazily. “No leadership on the ground until everything’s secured.”
“And they’ll declare it secure as soon as we agree to an alliance,” I finished. It was a power move, and it told me a lot about what I was dealing with.
It also impressed upon me how little leeway I had here. Cass was here, armed. Hands quietly looked back down at her laptop.
People were staring at us now, the equilibrium we’d built from forcing routine down into place broken. Nobody had met Cass before.
Nobody knew what to make of that many weapons.
“That’s about the size of it,” Cass said. “Though, they’re hesitating on any sort of alliance at the moment,”
My mouth was dry.
“Not a lot of reasons to do it, right? They can just tromp through here and level the entire war party up at Birmingham without us.” Easy enough.
I couldn’t let them do that.
Many reasons why, but I needed to see Patrickson dead myself to stop him from haunting me every time I closed my eyes.
“Well, actually,” Cass’s eyes flicked around. “Not to throw doubt at your encampment here, but there are other reasons why we can’t move forward.”
I opened my mouth, and Cass shook her head. “Not here. Come on, let’s get in the car.”
Hands stood up.
Cass’s eyes shot over to her. “Not you, Crusher. Just. Gale this time.”
“Could I bring Colton?”
“You really want to bring the guy who can throw knives into a secure conference with my boss?” Cass asked, disbelievingly.
They didn’t like dealing with powereds, and I was simultaneously the leader and the sole person among my core confidants that couldn’t kill someone without a weapon.
“At least take Excelsior.”
Cass pondered the idea for a moment.
I shook my head. “No, absolutely not.”
Hands blinked. “Why not?”
“This is a first impression,” I said. “And I won’t have it soured by whatever ideas they have about the Association.” Which meant… nobody from the older generation.
Cass shot me a grin full of fangs. I could count them, if I wanted to, but instead I stared like a deer at a train. “I knew I liked you, kiddo,” Cass said.
“I’m 20,” I said.
“Legal age is 21 here?” Cass asked. “For alcohol,” She clarified, “in case we need to drink to seal the deal.”
“I’m guessing wherever we’re going is going to be under Cuban Patrol jurisdiction,” I said, cutting a glance to the side. Loud enough for everyone to hear where I was going.
Might give them a bit of warning that things were happening, but I didn’t have time to articulate ir properly.
“Fair point,” Cass looked down at Hands with all the care of a hawk surveying a field of doves. “I’ll bring Gale back unharmed.”
There was a pause, and then she started walking away. I followed after her urban camouflage. There were things to do.
The black armored vehicle that greeted me sent a shiver down my spine. Rugged, meant to deal with wartime conditions, it looked spectacularly out of place, even in the slowly rotting city of Mobile. The rain sprinkled slightly over head and cascading down armored plate glass, meant to stop bullets. The disarray of countries below the American border was always worse to think about, much less stare at with such little caution.
Cassandra threw open the driver door and slipped inside. I slid in next to her. Roll cages, heavy armor, and the interior blasted rock music from the 80s. I displaced the air around my head to muffle the noise a bit.
“You sure you want to do this?” Cass asked.
“No sense backing out,” I said, hitching my seat belt.
“I’m driving you to another state, to a location you don’t know,” Cass pointed out.
“It gets us help, and helps stay off some of the problems here,” I said. “And I trust you.”
Cass laughed, leaning back in the gossamer upholstery, and shifted the car into drive. “You’re wrong to trust me, but sure, let’s say you do.”
“We did fight a giant monster together,” I said.
I could hear my heart thumping in my chest, staring at the office I’d made my headquarters out of.
“We did. And you saved my life once or twice,” Cass dismissed, watching the road lazily.
There wasn’t much of a point. Gas shortages had stranded cars on the road, so there was only the path Cass has taken in.
It was on the list of things to put the heroes to work towards; cleaning the roads so supplies could drift through.
It wasn’t on my mind, though. “So what, I shouldn’t trust you?”
“There’s trust, and there’s alliances,” Cass said, lazily. “And you’re going into the belly of the beast.”
For the first time in my life, I rejoiced in the fact that I barely had any powers at all. “My file says my power is to create tiny gusts of wind.”
She laughed, her hand slipping down to the shift stick. “Gale, the breeze maker? Come on, you did great down there. I haven’t seen someone spring back from being attacked like that in years, you’ve got to give yourself credit.”
“Not if it means your boss is wary of me,” I said. “Tell me you didn’t give him a false impression.”
“Patrickson took most of the passionately anti-powered with him,” Cass said. “Most of the rest of us just want this to be over with before we have a full on splinter organization on our hands.”
“Sounds like America’s not the only place in crisis right now,” I said, wonderingly. “What are they chasing after that brought them here, and now?”
Cass shrugged. “Scavengers fighting over carrion?”
But I remembered deep in the earth, how the creature had whispered of a prize, of a Fafnir, of a vial taken in the heart of the earth. What did it mean? What could it mean?
“Might be that,” I lied, turning away from her.
Cass shrugged and turned up the music so that windows shook and my fingers twitched. I glared at her sourly, and she just shrugged and raised a reddish eyebrow before relaxing back into the cab for the rest of the drive.
Idle conversation that never mattered, the buzz of the radio, and slow steady reassurance I repeated over and over again that things might be okay after all, if I didn’t bungle this one for everyone else.
Then we settled in and turned into Pascagoula.
Pascagoula was a seaside city. It had been tossed and fondled by a number of hurricanes over the years, and the stench of despair hung heavily over it now, even as Cass drove by the rows and rows of restored structures. Mostly abandoned, there were few people on the streets. My throat tightened, a knot forming in it as I watched.
“Have you been out of Mobile since this started?” Cass asked, curiously.
Flicked my mind to the north, where firebombs had killed civilians who hadn’t fled, their bodies thrown into a pit for processing.
Flicked my mind to the east, where Pensacola still stood, hoards of desperate refugees trying to make the most of things in crowded conditions while supplies ground to a halt.
Now we were in the west, and things didn’t look so bad.
“I have,” I said. “Did you run into trouble setting up here?”
“They were grateful,” Cass said. “Mississippi response teams have been sluggish to respond and reply, and lots of trouble areas just haven’t gotten any touches apart from what bases were already there.”
“What’ve they been busy with?” I asked, tentatively.
She looked out into the distance, sighing. I followed her gaze to the overgrowth touching the side of the town. Virulent masses of kudzu, trees, weeds, grasses.
I thought it might be something out of a nightmare, where the hillside had stretched, where urban sprawl was supposed to be, was only the undulated tides of green stretched like canvass.
If it weren’t for the matter of scale, I’d’ve said the black dots milling about in front of it were ants.
And then the flamethrowers went off, and lines of hot gas came down upon the plants and the world roared in defiance; spores rained from above in gouts of flame, and the vines shifted and twitched to the beat and pulse of a foreign brain.
“Don’t look too hard, lest you catch something,” Cass said, dismissively. “You’re not proper inoculated, no matter how brief your exposure.”
“The hell is that?” I whispered.
“That,” Cass said. “Is your gulf coast’s personal hell; the Green World. It’s been spreading rapidly; it’s why we moved in when we did instead of waiting for this to blow over.”
Growth. It was always about growth. Lost Boy, the Sea of Skin, and now this.
It rankled me to consider that it took an act of malice the size of the entire forest awakening to kill the south to get someone to intervene.
And the sun stood green overhead the burning plants, and I thought I could hear people begging for a trade.
I swallowed, white knuckled as I peered at the mess of mixed up signals and burning kudzu. Miles away, but the smoke ran high.
I knew what it was.
“What is it doing?” I asked, unable to take my eyes off of it for more than a moment.
“Consuming. Mindlessly. It’s a mass of plants and nature,” Cass said. “And it’s all over the gulf coast.
“That’s why we’ve been cut off by everyone else, isn’t it?” I asked. “Things like this are spreading all over?”
“That’s the size of it,” Cass said. “We’re lucky that you’ve got a bit of a settlement up and running, honestly, I don’t want to know what we’d’ve had to do to force ourselves up the state if we didn’t have a muster point.”
Jaw clenched as I stared at the kudzu. As fire rolled across it, it rippled, roiled, and retreated, revealing houses, buildings, cars.
For a moment, I was back in the basement of Dauphin island, and the monster was rumbling towards me whispering lies, and that the line holding out against the kudzu would break-
But for maybe the first time in months, the monster wasn’t facing a squad of half trained heroes everyone thought might die, the monster was fighting a trained team of interventionists, and the Cuban Patrol broke the assault across the backs of flame and gunfire.
I didn’t know what happened to the people that had been left behind here.
But the Cuban Patrol could keep an area like this stable.
But I knew what had happened to the people that had been left behind here.
There wasn’t a point in pretending otherwise.
These things existed in the world, and trying to feign ignorance would get me nowhere. Trying to hedge out that we’d keep getting lucky would get us nowhere.
Cass pulled me away from the window and turned the vehicle away, looking down at the clock.
“They’re about on time for patrol. Good to see they haven’t lost anything while I was gone.”
Cuban Patrol HQ was a hot mess of sprawling military vehicles, temporary structure trailers, and a single well defended power plant in the center, still churning out smoke into the air. The building, monolithic; the vehicles thick enough to form a platoon.
Supplies. Support. Training.
These were all things I needed to bring home with me.
What on earth would I have to offer here.
The radio crackled to life on the front of the car, and Cass turned off the blaring rock music.
“Containment, Cassandra, escorting ambassador,,”
“Roger, did you run into any trouble on your way?”
“Not at all, the containment crews are doing an excellent job.”
Then the barricade slowly lifted, hauled into place by jury rigged construction equipment, and we entered into the maw of the beast.
A glance saw people in familiar armor practicing in the makeshift fields outside of the plant, and I swallowed again, to try and assuage myself that I wasn’t entering into hell itself.
Then Cass parked the car and popped open the doors. “Come on. Let’s get you inside.”
I must’ve been a sight, because the few soldiers who weren’t actively on duty stared at us as we slid out of the parking lot.
I didn’t blame them, a tattered cape trailed behind me, and my uniform was scuffed to hell and back again. There hadn’t been time to get a replacement.
I didn’t need one, the armor was mostly intact. So what if it marked me an outsider.
Cass’s grin slowly spread as people stared at the two of us, shooting a jaunty wave at the ranks on display.
“Shouldn’t you be falling in line with the rest of them?” I asked, curiously. “Why are you so at ease?”
“I’m actually…” Cass shrugged. “You know what, it’ll be easier to let you put things together.”
I stared at her, cocking my head to the side, then flicked my eyes over to the car behind us.
Then at the gates.
Then stared at her for a long moment. “Special ops?”
“Something like that. Us non powered can be special too, you know.”
The front door to the power plant opened, and we strayed inside. Row after row of armed guards stood at attention inside. Cass dismissed them with a wave of her arms. “At ease,” Cass said, putting a hand on my shoulders. “This is Gale. The Ambassador for that settlement down in Mobile?”
The secretary, conveniently sitting behind the front desk, flipped through a few clipboards. “Meeting room B is open for debriefing, if you’re up for it.”
“I’m up for it,” Cass said. “Come on, let’s get this over with, Gale.”
I didn’t speak. If I’d wanted to, I wouldn’t’ve been able to do it, either. Memories of another base with this many weapons pointed at us, guns against our heads. Martial prowesses.
But this wasn’t about me. This was about everyone else.
Meeting room B held tattered yellow corporate buzzwords about responsibility and efficiency that tickled at the edge of my soul to look at, and an older man with a greying beard in full uniform.
Also paperwork. Minutes from whatever power plant presentation had been going on when they’d evacuated. Some of it bore burns, others bullet holes.
I could feel the moment his eyes raked across the purple of my uniform, and could see the opinion forming in his head.
“Commander Rutherford,” Cass said. “If I might introduce you to Gale?”
“And what do you do, Gale?” Rutherford said, gesturing at me to sit down. “Do you manipulate luck? Manifest large quantities of food? Perhaps you summons hurricanes?”
Despite myself, I laughed. “Summoning storms is more of my father’s domain, sir. I can summon small gusts of wind, and that’s about it.”
The Commander raised an eyebrow. Cass took a seat at the table. “Just a gust of wind? If you could, could you knock over that paperwork over there?”
Her fingers flicked across the surface of a combat knife as she sat there, carefully watching me.
Without looking away, the paperwork slumped to the floor and scattered to the wind.
“Well,” The Commander said. “This is better than what I was expecting, I suppose.”
“Excelsior?” I asked.
“Yes, the swordsman,” the Commander agreed. “We maintained radio contact when he assured me there was still a settlement around this area. It’s in everyone’s best interests if we don’t let those fall, you understand.”
“Of course,” I said.
“Especially considering how this Green World is spreading.”
It was a curious thing, to feel my mind itch at those words, again. Green Towassa. Green Cities, buried under ash and plague.
The Commander turned to look at Cass. “Soldier. How was your mission at the Dauphin Island research center?”
“Flawed. Patrickson destroyed their beacon.”
“Of course he did,” Rutherford muttered. “Bastard really does want to spread the misery.”
“Beacon?” I asked.
“Each Association base is equipped with a reality stabilizing beacon to be used in emergency situations. It shuts off the use of powers in the area, but more importantly, prevents the world from changing drastically around it,” Rutherford recited. “It was… necessary for our plans that we obtain one.”
This was a clear cut difference from Patrickson, who had clearly intended for Mobile to be crushed under the heel of the first such disaster.
But it rankled me to think that the Association had something like that under their control. Wasn’t that antithetical to operations to have such devices hidden in each base?
But… I suppose… if a base were to go rogue… or something were to go wrong… being able to kill off a base at will…
Every time I thought about the Association, it made my teeth grit a bit more. So many layers of stupid secrets.
So much paranoia.
What the hell had happened to get them that way?
“You look confused,” The Commander said. “Cassandra, exactly how much does our Ambassador know?”
“I’ve kept Gale purposefully in the dark about the matter, I didn’t know exactly how the scale would rank.” Cass reported, a bit more soldieresque.
“B, at least,” Cass said. “I saw Gale go under from a wraith, and go from scrambled to mostly fine in a matter of a half an hour.”
“Scale?” I asked.
It clicked into place.
“The Hawkins Scale of resistance,” The Commander said. “The scale used to measure the resistance of an area or individual to reality bending phenomena,” he clarified. “Take your beacons. If you’ve ever been exposed to one, you’ve briefly dwelt in a place where you have no powers and reality behaves in a way perfectly congruent with a 1930s understanding of the physical laws of the universe.”
Rebecca had created another scale to measure heroes. It’s why I hadn’t been powdered when the lost boy had struck me, or died at the whims of the wraith invading my brain.
It’s what Faraday’s suit spread; a cone of complete normalcy. Resistance.
And I remembered what they’d said, dragging me out of the rubble.
I was resistant.
The Association didn’t use her scale, but the Cuban Patrol did. It made sense; the resistance scale would be instrumental to managing enemies with powers; squads of resistant troops could be sent in to put down uprisings by minimizing, while the Association wouldn’t want to publicly rank their heroes defences when they could instead list their offences.
If that information was available to the public, heroes would be at risk.
But the Patrol was a military organization without a civil branch; they could maintain opsec internally and not have to worry about press releases.
Instead of having powers, they just diminished them enough they could take them out with a gun.
Slowly, I nodded. I remembered Patrickson using the portable beacon… and I remembered the graveyard. I remembered how it ached to not be in touch, how it had seemed silly and useless.
I was… a defensive hero.
I prevented things from going wrong.
“So too do some people modulate reality. It’s not a perfect comparison, as the beacons are designed to be perfect in their recreation of the physical laws of the universe, while resistors are subject to their own understanding of their environment. For instance, a powerful resistor might be able to remain alive longer than they ought to, when pressed with fatal wounds, because their understanding of reality doesn’t allow for them to die that easily.”
I realized he was talking about me. I was a B on this scale.
But he was also talking about something else. I’d seen it with the Lost Boy. A creature too dumb to understand when it was supposed to die; it didn’t follow with the conjugation of reality given to it.
So it died only when a stronger reality had asserted that it should die.
It was oddly hollow to realize I qualified for a higher rank than I’d been given. But it wasn’t the time or the place to be vindicated, neither was it the time or place to realize that my deeper super power was just…
Not dying as hard as everyone else.
But the Association had never ranked based on resistance, they’d ranked based on powers.
Me, the nearly powerless wretch, had power on this other scale. “Hence why I was placed on a kill squad. I could reduce the randomness of the assignment.”
The Commander raised an eyebrow.
Cass laughed. “Gale creates small gusts of wind, gets put on a kill squad? How desperate were they…?” She was a powerful resistor, too, to go head to head with a creature like that and come out alive.
Who else was a strong resistor? Excelsior?
Another dimension to view things through.
“Doesn’t matter,” Rutherford dismissed. “Getting a perfect sphere of reality was instrumental to our plans to invade Birmingham. Without it, getting to there will be impossible; the world will show great resistance. We’ll bleed inch by inch.”
“Mobile is mine,” I said. “You’ll have a muster point, and you’ll have a place to move forward from.”
“There are miles of roads between your city and Birmingham, Gale,” Rutherford said. “Unless you have something to offer? Otherwise, I’ll have to wait for reinforcements to dreg their way up from the crisis points in South America.”
I swallowed. Cass’s eyes shot over to mine, glinting with something. A certain interest, perhaps, in what I’d say next.
“What if I told you that you couldn’t afford to wait for the situation to improve?” I said.
My heart thumped in my chest.
If I was right, and everything lined up…
Rutherford raised an eyebrow, though I could read interest in his body language. Could taste it in my sense of the air. “Oh?”
“And what,” Cassandra said, slowly, languidly. “Could you possibly tell us that could make this any worse?”
“It’s what Dauphin island was researching.” I said. “They were working on reversing the transformations of Lost Boys.”
“Those that’d normalized themselves into monsters? I don’t see-” Rutherford paused, then looked at me securely. “I should point out that it is utter treason and punishable to the strictest notes of the law for Association personnel to talk about Fafnir in any circumstances. I won’t ask you to endanger yourself if you don’t wish to.”
Here it was.
My fingers curled, white knuckled, against the edge of the table.
Here was my play.
Less than a state’s width away from Mobile were active military bases, fire bombers, Association members, heroes, and soldiers. They had all the supplies Mobile could use, had all the tools we could ever need.
And they were too busy with Montgomery to assist us.
It’d fall on me.
I knew how this was going to play out.
This was treason.
This was treason.
But I didn’t hesitate, because this wasn’t about me.
“I am Gale, head hero of Mobile. I am not a member of the Association at this time,” I said. “And Patrickson has a vial of Fafnir.”
“Well,” The general said, leaning forward. “That changes everything.”
Where one vehicle had left mobile, five returned. The armored vehicle held both Cassandra and I, and a few more soldiers, and the other four held supplies. Two just for setting up a base, and two full of food. Medicine. Fuel.
Everything I’d struggled to earn with lives and power, I’d earned with a single word and selling out the organization I thought I’d worked for.
But minor ties like that didn’t matter, not when there were lives on the line.
Cassandra followed after me.
“What’re you going to tell them?” She asked, playfully.
I shot her a look. “That I found bigger guns to hide with,” I said. “There’s no pride here, there’s terror, and there’s danger.”
What I saw back there had made it clear that Mobile wouldn’t last much longer without throwing in with someone else.
It was late afternoon, and the sky was just starting the afternoon showers when I strolled into the the HQ across from the Waffle House. They were on their most bare bones menu now, just coffee and waffles, but I could see heroes sitting inside watching the TV for news.
I stepped into the HQ with Cass behind me. “We have new orders.”
Hands looked up from her laptop and blinked. “Well, you’re back already. How’d it go?”
Cass swept inside.
I swallowed, looking around. Petty heroes, people who had never needed to fight, but had risen up to do it anyway.
“War time operations are now in effect. The Cuban Patrol will be assisting us, and we will assist them in readying to take Birmingham.”
Excelsior paused from his cup of coffee, his eyes going wide.
Then they narrowed. I could read the emotions across his skin in my wind sense, that passive idea of resistance, then slow resignation.
“What’d you trade our support for?” he asked, curiously.
“Supplies, stabilization, protection,” I said. “The world is dangerous out there, and we almost lost to the first threat we stumbled across.”
“So that’s where we are now,” Colton said, walking out of the hallway.
Cassandra waved at him, and Colton paused, eyeing her. “Does that mean..”
I swallowed. “I’m still your ranking hero,” I said. “But I’m going to be taking orders from them for a bit.”
“Report to the food banks for supplies, armor, and orders. The Cuban Patrol is taking over our supply lines.”
For a brief moment, I felt like Judas.
But unlike Judas, I’d be the one feeling the pain of betrayal if and when this went poorly.
But maybe, just maybe, I could trade away the laws of the old world, the ties that bound me, and get stability from them.