“Killer!” sounded a voice thirty three feet and eight inches to my left, with a tone that could have been accusatory.
The word cut through my train of thought, leaving me floundering mentally and nearly making me trip over my own feet in front of Seattle’s esteemed public. Well, not all of them, but Gasconade and I were making our way through one of the really crowded plazas in downtown Seattle. Being capes in full costume, with one of us looking like a Picasso painting that had a bad run in with a glitch artist, we naturally attracted a lot of attention. I’d been focusing on the beautiful newly constructed skyscrapers around downtown Seattle as a way to distract myself from the churning crowds surrounding us, but I found my gaze pulled inexorably toward the source of that damning voice.
It was a man in his mid-to-late twenties, six and a half inches taller than me. He was looking at me with a big smile on his face -I suppressed a shudder.-, excitedly waving for my attention. I swallowed, closing the distance just enough to talk comfortably, “Wha- what was that?” my voice came out quieter than I’d intended, less confident, but I was honestly proud that I’d managed to speak at all.
He laughed. “I said, ‘Your costume is killer!’. That cloak is dope as fuck.”
Relief washed over me like a bucket of cold water, stark enough that I laughed out loud. “Thank you! Or rather, thank the tailors that worked so hard to finish the embroidery in time for my first patrol.” My first official patrol, rather, I thought. But eh, toh-may-to toh-mah-to.
“Did they design it, then?” he asked, sounding genuinely curious.
I stood up straighter, placing my hands on my hips heroically. “It was a team effort. I did the initial designs and got feedback on them, and then made adjustments in response to their suggestions. The embroidery was done by the very talented people working in the Space Needle’s branding and costuming department, but the armor was made by yours truly.”
I demonstrated by lifting both arms in front of me and wiggling my fingers, showing off the fine mechanisms at each joint. After how important stealth had been to my success at the warehouse I’d gone through considerable effort to make certain the action of my armor was almost completely silent; the result of well oiled joints and carefully placed padding wherever plates intersected.
He whistled appreciatively, in what I dearly hoped was enthusiasm for the quality of my armor. “Very impressive. What’s your superhero name?”
“I am Sepulcher, heroine extraordinaire,” I announced theatrically, smiling under my mask.
“Sepulcher, huh?” he said, rubbing his chin in thought. “What kinda power goes with a name like that?”
I smirked. “Let’s just say the walls have my back,” I replied airily, leaning back on a short stone fence that hadn’t been there a second ago.
“Woah!” he all but yelped, taking a step back and leaning forward for a closer look at the same time. “That’s amazing, you can just make walls out of thin air?”
“Well, only from solid surfaces actually,” I corrected instinctively. Almost immediately after the thought occurred to me that it would be useful for people to misunderstand exactly how my powers worked. Oh well, I guessed I’d just have to keep it in mind for the future. “But essentially yes. Anywho, I’m afraid I must be off; Gasconade and I have a city to protect and whatnot.”
“Oh, no problem,” he said, sounding like he genuinely meant it. “Thanks for taking the time to talk.”
I nodded. “It was no trouble, I promise. Have a good rest of your day!”
I waved him off, joining back up with Gasconade. He’d been hovering just inside of hearing range, apparently content to let me handle the conversation while he kept watch and took pictures with people. His expression was unreadable, of course. He didn’t really have a face, just a collection of features scrapbooked together seemingly at random. A nose that looked drawn on in pencil here, an eye there, part of a mouth somewhere else, covering his oddly proportioned body like a broken texture.
“You handled that well,” he said once there wasn’t anyone in earshot. “I know how much you hate crowds.”
“It’s easier when I think of them as an audience,” I said, just loud enough for him to hear. “Performing in front of a crowd doesn’t drain me in the way that being part of one does. Maybe it’s because I can perceive them as a single abstract entity instead of trying to track every individual.”
He ‘hmmed’, keeping up his fast walking pace as he thought. Gasconade had a way of looking like he was on his way to an important meeting everywhere he went, which had the useful side effect of repelling all but the most determined picture seekers. “You sound so much more confident now, you’ve even been walking more self-assuredly.”
“Thank you,” I chirped cheerily. “I guess it’s a lot easier to feel impressive and heroic when I look impressive and heroic. And no one’s misgendered me today, which I consider its own sort of victory.”
Gasconade chuckled. “Well I’m glad you’re having fun, at least.”
“I guess this isn’t your favorite part of the job,” I noted, not quite a question.
“I can’t say it is, no,” he said quietly. Then he sighed, gazing at the crowd around us. “It just… it feels like I’m an animal in a petting zoo sometimes. Everyone wants to touch me, everyone wants a picture, and no one seems very interested in what I have to say.”
“I think I get that, a little. A lot of people treat trans folks like we’re circus freaks or something, figures of ridicule and pity rather than full members of society. It sucks.” I paused. “Do you want a hug?” I asked, not sure how else to offer support.
“I kind of do, actually,” he said, surprising me. “But now probably isn’t the best time. We don’t want people getting the wrong idea.”
I nodded, making a mental note to give him a really good hug when we got back to the Needle. “So where were we supposed to go next? Please tell me it’s somewhere with less people.”
He chuckled. “So not completely immune to crowds now, are we? We’re gonna be skirting the edge of Westlake territory, I wouldn’t expect quite as warm a welcome as you got in the touristy areas.”
“Good to know,” I said, considering the implications of that. “Do you think we’ll be attacked?”
“Probably not. We might run into some petty crimes, though.”
I nodded. “Is it weird that that’s almost a relief?”
We’d left the crowded plaza behind a few minutes ago, taking crosswalks and occasionally answering questions or signing autographs for passersby. It seemed strange that anyone would be interested in my autograph before I’d actually done anything of note, but I supposed they were just planning for the future. Or they thought my armor looked cool? I’d take it either way. We passed by a beautiful looking library building with glass panes for walls, arranged like polygons on an early 3d model. I made another mental note to go inside there at the first available opportunity and memorize every inch of it with my tremorsense.
It was going to take a while before I filled out my mental map of Seattle in full detail, potentially months or years of work even with my power. Thankfully these regular patrols were a goldmine for new locations and architecture. Even after hours of walking around downtown Seattle I still found myself constantly craning my neck up at the absurdly tall buildings surrounding us. Their sheer mass and scale and number left me awestruck, my thinker power letting me know precisely how much larger the city was relative to me. Parts of the city I’d glimpsed in the distance during my little foray to the top of the Needle were still represented in my internal map of Seattle, but most of it was hidden behind buildings and so far away that even the parts I could see were vague blurs at best.
It was still enough to make me uncomfortably aware of just how small I was in the grand scheme of things, even when just considering Seattle and its surrounding locales. On impulse, I tried visualizing the entire earth relative to me. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t actually fill it out with more than outlines, since I was just trying to visualize exactly how large a not-quite-sphere with a circumference of 24,901 miles around the equator was relative to me. Shockingly, it turned out to be really fucking big. The image my mind kept circling back to was a single mote of dust compared to an entire mountain, the intellectual knowledge that the vast mountain was made up of innumerable tiny particles comparable to the dust mote becoming concrete fact as certain as the concrete I walked on. It was akin to walking through the shallow waters next to a beach and finding the soft sand under your feet drop off abruptly into a seemingly endless black abyss.
“Oh yeah?” A man snarled nearby, making my heart skip a beat and startling me out of my thoughts. “If you care about the city so much why haven’t you liberal ‘heroes’ locked up that damned hippy Lenin statue haunting Fremont in the birdcage where it belongs?”
I blinked. “I’m sorry, the… Lenin statue? Why would we lock up a statue?”
Gasconade sighed audibly. “A couple years back the quote unquote League of Insidious Villainry rigged up the hollow bronze statue of Lenin in Fremont with a robotic frame, and then subsequently programmed it to rampage through the Westlake Center while shouting communist slogans in a bad russian accent. Thanks to the efforts of Presto and the other wards we were able to remove the tinker device before anyone was seriously hurt. Afterwards we repaired the statue as best we could and returned it to its former post, though not before being thoroughly examined for further tampering.”
The slightly grubby bearded man confronting Gasconade snorted, folding his arms. “You expect me to believe that horseshit? Everyone knows the PRT’s been in cahoots with the commies since day one.”
“I’m still confused about why there’s a statue of Lenin in… Fremont, you said?” I added, ignoring the conspiracy theorist.
“It’s a long story,” Gasconade said. “But suffice it to say it’s on private property, so the Protectorate and PRT can’t do anything about it being there.”
I turned to face the ‘concerned citizen’. “I’m sorry, sir,” I lied, affecting a grave tone. “But our hands are tied, there’s nothing we can do.”
“Oh I see, you capes flaunt the law all you like and smile for the cameras; a guy like me points out a weapon in the middle of the street and suddenly the law says it’s supposed to be there?” he harrumphed, pushing past us and continuing along the busy sidewalk lined with trees.
He’d presumably reappear there half a minute later, given that he’d shoulder-checked Gasconade. We didn’t bother staying to find out, picking up our walking pace in unspoken agreement as we continued up the street. Wandering around a couple hours in downtown Seattle had lead to a delightful discovery; walking up hills was almost effortless for me now, since I could use the ground under me like an escalator to lift my feet up with each step. I’d even figured out a gait that barely relied on muscle movement at all while still looking natural. It helped that my armor could stand on its own and had enough cushioning inside for me to lock the joints and rest my weight on it like a really weird chair.
Even with the occasional weirdo and the constant, nerve-wracking presence of crowds I still found myself enjoying my time patrolling the city. Gasconade’s presence was a big help, he knew Seattle in a way I wasn’t sure I could ever match and had a sense for when and how to step in and defuse a situation. Whether it was a brewing fistfight or an interaction with a civilian taking a bad turn, he knew what to say to get everyone to calm down and go their separate ways peacefully. I admired how patient and on task he was even after hours of being gawked at and asked profoundly stupid and/or intrusive questions about his life and power.
I turned toward him, a question about his plans for after this shift on the tip of my tongue. Before I could voice it the commlink in my ear buzzed with a harsh staticy sound, startling me enough to make me jump a little.
“We’ve got a reported sighting of a known Westlake enforcer a few blocks from you,” said the PRT officer on the other end. “He was on 6th Avenue and Prospect Street, headed North. He’s a giant half-lion guy, you can’t miss him.”
“Did you hear that?” I asked Gasconade, trying to contain my nervousness.
He nodded. “Go get him, I’ll finish up here.”
“See you back at the Needle,” I said, giving my partner a quick salute before leaping onto the side of the nearest skyscraper, cloak fluttering in the wind. I’d never been to the area the comms guy had mentioned, but thankfully I’d taken the time to encode the names of most of Seattle’s major streets into my mental map.
To my dismay, it turned out I couldn’t use my power to interpret text; it memorized the shapes of letters just fine if they were engraved or scratched into a surface, but in order to understand what they spelled out I needed to physically recreate the object and then read them normally. That wasn’t practical in a situation like this, so I’d been forced to come up with another way to reliably store speech with my power. Numbers were translated into simple blocks with the appropriate amount of grooves in them, the oft accompanying ‘th’ sound represented by a twisted shape resembling a snake’s tongue stabbing upward. Each phoneme in the english language had its own distinct shape, forming a sort of cipher for translating specific words and ideas into something my power could understand and remember. My mental map of Seattle had sequences of these shapes lining every street I knew the name of, abstract sculptures being used as a glorified labeling system.
With this technique translating the sounds of a street name into a specific location I could route to was a cinch. It wasn’t too far away, all things considered; before more than a couple minutes had passed I was already honing in on the Bastard’s last known location. Skyscrapers and shopping centers transitioned abruptly into patchwork suburbs punctuated by the occasional low-rise apartment or strip mall, forcing me to adapt my movement style. I focused on long jumps with low arcs, getting as much horizontal distance as possible to pass between more distant buildings. My thinker power was indispensable for planning out movements in unfamiliar terrain, it was probably the only thing keeping me from accidentally launching myself through someone’s kitchen. Again.
Unsurprisingly there was no lion man to be found at the intersection we’d been given over comms, which meant I’d need to track him down. The report said he’d been heading north, so I continued up the street with renewed fervor, keeping my eyes peeled for any sign of mob-affiliated lion men. I was in Westlake territory now, which meant every second I stayed here increased the odds that one of the Bastards would try and pick a fight with me. As confident as I felt in my new armor, I wasn’t willing to risk engaging in fisticuffs with some of the deadliest capes in the city.
It turned out that Menagerie was a rather prolific cape. I’d heard that he didn’t keep his power exclusive to the Westlake Bastards themselves, but I hadn’t expected minor animal traits to be as common here as tattoos or piercings were in most places. Individuals or small groups bearing more extreme mutations appeared on occasion, the crowd usually parting around them to leave a small bubble of walking space. It wasn’t clear whether it was out of fear, reverence, or both. After several minutes of frantic searching I was nearly ready to call it quits, my eyes sweeping across a busy street one last time. A group of feline… mutates (would it be mutates? I wasn’t sure what term they preferred) caught my eye, one of them seeming strangely familiar even this far away.
He shouldered past a pedestrian that had failed to move out of the way fast enough, knocking her onto the street. The memory clicked into place, and just like that I knew the Bastard enforcer I’d been hunting was the same lion guy that punched me in the boob last week. Before I quite realized what was happening, I launched myself from the building I’d been perched on with a trajectory that would land me right between Mufasa and the woman he’d just pushed over. My landing was a classic three-pointer, though somewhat rougher than I might have hoped. It was forceful enough to create a visible ripple in the ground that disturbed footing and upturned old newspapers on the other side of the street.
“Mufasa! Fancy meeting you here,” I quipped. “How’ve you been? Didn’t spend too long trapped in the sewers, I hope.”
He growled and took a swipe at me the second he regained his composure, but this time I was ready. A clawed hand collided with the stone wall I’d raised to block it, sinking into it like clay as I manipulated its material properties with my power. He remained in the suddenly resolidified stone when I stepped away, shifting the ground under his feet to entangle him and draw him further under.
“What are you doing to him?” asked a scandalized voice behind me, drawing my attention away from the struggling lion man. It was the woman he’d knocked over, her face subtly elongated with two stubby horns poking out of her forehead. The legs peeking out past the hem of her skirt were digitigrade and covered with soft fur, ending in cloven hooves like a deer’s rather than feet. I offered her a hand up, making an effort not to stare. It was probably nearly impossible to tell where I was looking with my mask on, but that was no reason to develop bad habits.
She gave me such a sour look I could swear she’d have sooner spat on my hand than taken it, but after a few tense moments she begrudgingly accepted my assistance. Gasconade really hadn’t been kidding when he said we wouldn’t have a warm reception here. The second she was on her uh… hooves again she wrenched her hand back toward her like it had been burned by the brief contact with me.
“Well?” she demanded. “You Flats are always barging in, patting down anyone with a blessing, taking fathers from sons and mothers from daughters. Now this? You demean him, constrain him, joke about trapping him in the sewers. Is this your idea of being a hero?”
“Didn’t he just knock you down?” I asked, uncertainty leaking into my voice and bearing.
“I mean, yes. But it wasn’t...” She sputtered for a moment, and in that pause we seemed to simultaneously realize just how many people were looking at us. A loose ring had formed around the restrained Bastard, locals staring us down with at least a half-dozen different kinds of eyes all bearing the same resentful expressions. The deer girl regained her composure, squaring her slender shoulders as she faced me. “That’s not the point. He’s one of us, that means we stick up for each other. I bet you think you’re so original with that ‘Mufasa’ bit, you have any idea how many people just decide they can call me Bambi? It really pisses me off. Bambi was a boy!”
I raised my hands in surrender, taken aback by her vehemence. “Alright, I admit that Mufasa comment earlier was over the line. I know it’s not much of an excuse, but I genuinely hadn’t considered how hurtful it would be. I’m sorry.”
She went silent for a few moments, eyeing me skeptically as if to determine whether I was sincere. “Not a lot of people do,” she groused. “But I guess it means something that you’re willing to try. Not that it’s not appreciated, but shouldn’t you be apologizing to him? Or explaining why you attacked him with the sidewalk?”
I looked back over at the leonine mafioso to make sure there was no chance of him escaping again, briefly watching him futilely trying to pull his limbs from the architecture they were embedded in. “Yeah, I’m not gonna apologize to him. He’s an enforcer for the Westlake Bastards with a criminal record longer than your average airport novel; just last week he punched me hard enough to lay me out flat and put a dent in my breastplate shaped like his fist. I’ve still got a big bruise from it, the PRT doc said I was lucky my ribs didn’t crack.”
She stared at me wide eyes as I spoke, not even seeming to blink until after I’d finished. “Oh,” she said. “Is that why you trapped him in the sewers?”
“Sort of?” I responded, moving my gauntleted hand in a so-so gesture. “It’s more that I needed him out of the picture as quickly as possible. There were hostages I had to protect, and every moment I spent dealing with him could have been when the rest of his goons came bursting out to perforate us with bullets.”
She blinked again, absentmindedly moving a lock of hair behind a distinctly pointed ear while she collected her thoughts. “Alright, that does sound pretty serious. How do you know you got the right guy? And how do I know you’re telling the truth?”
“Same gait, same weight, same height, same style of mane,” I rattled off absentmindedly, shifting the lion man’s bonds to make him easier to transport. “And besides, I’ve got a lot of experience with guys like him. I recognized the way he liked throwing his metaphorical and literal weight around. As for your other question… I guess you don’t. I wish I could do more to help reassure you, but I can’t stay here too much longer without risking a cape fight.”
The deer lady’s brow furrowed for a few moments as she thought it over, eventually letting out a soft sigh. “I guess that’s fair enough,” she allowed. “You’re not as bad as most of the Flats that come barging into our neighborhood. Could I at least get your cape name before you go? I’m Adeline.”
“It’s Sepulcher,” I said, handing her one of the business cards with my logo and work number on it from the stack PR had given me. “Let me know if you ever need help, have questions about power stuff or just need a listening ear. I’ll do whatever I can.”
Adeline nodded, looking a little thrown by the gesture.
“Just one last thing,” I added. “What exactly is a ‘Flat’?”
Adeline winced a little at the question, the one ear not hidden by her hair drooping a little. “A Flat is like most folks not from around here; someone that keeps their body the way they got it and thinks other people should too. I didn’t mean it as an insult or anything, I just got so frustrated with all the people who won’t let us be who we are that I painted all outsiders with the same brush.”
I took a moment to process that. “Well it’s not really… accurate, for me. Being a trans woman, I’ve spent most of my adult life desperately trying to get my body into a shape I’m comfortable with. It hasn’t been easy. If getting a ‘blessing’ from Menagerie is what makes you happy, I say go for it.”
“Trans folks have always been welcome here,” she said, giving me the first genuine smile I’d ever seen from her. “I guess you’re not an outsider after all. Goodbye, Sepulcher. Be safe out there.”
I nodded, giving her a quick salute before carting off the Bastard lion man somewhere more secure. As I was leaving I added a life-sized statue of Adeline to my mental map of Seattle, labelled with the shapes I used to store speech with my power. I’d made a sufficiently shaky (Shakery?) first impression that I didn’t want to risk forgetting her name on top of that.
A few minutes later I stood waiting on a rooftop on the edge of Protectorate-controlled territory, waiting for a van to come pick up the lion man. He hadn’t been very forthcoming while we were travelling here via the Sepulcher Underground, generally grunting or telling me to fuck off when I tried prodding him for information.
“So,” I said, breaking the awkward silence. “How did you become part lion? Is there like a waiting list or something for Menagerie’s services?”
He continued pouting in stubborn silence.
“I have to admit I’d be tempted if he offered me the chance to become a bird woman. Not that I’m not one already mind you, but I’d appreciate being able to actually fly and turn my head a hundred and eighty degrees.” Not to mention getting to be slender and graceful for once, I thought wistfully, thinking back to Adeline and others I’d seen with one of Menagerie’s ‘gifts’.
The lion man audibly grit his teeth, leaning his head back against the wall he was bolted to.
I decided to continue talking. “On the other hand, the shedding would probably be its own special kind of hell. Just growing my hair out is bad enough, I can’t imagine dealing with having feathers always floating around my room. Would I have a beak? Would I want a beak? This is probably gonna take some serious thinking to figure out.” I took on a theatrically contemplative pose, resting my right elbow on my left hand and tapping my chin with a repeated clink. “Any thoughts? I’m all ears.”
“Eat shit,” the lion man spat, following it up with more literal spit that fell well short of my armored feet.
“Now is that any way to treat a lady?” Presto chided, perched on the short wall next to him. She gave his ear a light flick as if to emphasize her point and casually dropped onto the gravel rooftop, waltzing over to stand next to me like she didn’t have a care in the world.
I surprised myself by not yelping or jumping at her unexpected appearance, instead shifting instinctively into a defensive stance with mancatcher in hand. It was a struggle not to make more, not to surround myself with layers and layers of defenses until nothing could possibly get through and no one could hurt me. Keep steady Sepulcher, I thought, don’t let your fears control you.
I reasserted control over my power inch by careful inch, my armor helping to anchor me in the present moment. The only visible sign of my internal struggles was a distinctly sharp ripple that dissipated just before reaching Presto’s feet. She tensed, briefly freezing in place mid-stride before recovering and taking the last couple steps to stand awkwardly besides me.
“Presto,” I said, voice pitched to keep the lion man from hearing us. If it also helped disguise some of the reproach in it that was just a bonus. “I see you’re as skilled at communication as ever. It was so courteous of you to let me know you were gonna pop in like that instead of say, suddenly appearing out of nowhere and nearly giving me a heart attack. Again.”
She winced, raising up her hands in surrender. “I should’ve called ahead, I won’t lie about that.”
“Yeah,” I said, voice flat and cold, “you should have. We’re going to have a discussion about this later, but for now you should probably tell me why you’re here. ”
Presto grinned, though it was noticeably dimmer than usual. “Ah, well I was thinking I’d help you ask Eric here a few questions while we’re waiting for the PRT vans to arrive. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I get the impression you ain’t got much experience with interrogations.”
As upset I was, I found myself returning her smile. Not that it mattered, really, with my mask. “Well you’re not wrong, I haven’t gotten anything out of him except swearing so far. Wait... his name is fucking Eric?”
She chuckled. “What were you expecting, Lionel?”
“I don’t know, I guess I just figured he had a cape name or something. It feels less lame to get knocked off my feet by like… Claw or whatever the fuck than some two-bit loser named Eric.” Or Ray, I added mentally. “And besides, doesn’t he have powers? They’re not quite as dramatic as ours, but he’s still definitely stronger than a normal person.” My hand drifted unconsciously toward my breastplate, where I could feel the still-healing bruise Eric had given me last week.
The lion man in question sat quietly in his power-made bonds, his expression dark and shuttered. I wondered if he had enhanced hearing. The sky over us was grey and cloudy, casting the whole city in a diffuse light. Presto stared at him with a hard expression, holding the wand in her left hand with a white knuckled grip. She stood eerily still, like a cat getting ready to pounce.
“So you’re that Eric,” she said, flashing him a smile that was more like baring her teeth. She circled around him like a cat playing with a cornered mouse, her wand flicking back and forth unpredictably. I found myself transfixed, face heating up in defiance of the chilly breeze whipping at my cloak and cooling the metal of my armor. “You make a habit of arranging kidnappings?”
He snorted. “I know better than to talk to cops.”
“Not a fucking cop--”
“--We’re not cops,” Presto and I said at the same time, voices overlapping each other. We stopped talking, sharing a brief surprised look before turning back toward Eric. I gestured for Presto to continue.
She flicked her wand at him, making his bonds disappear. He immediately lunged for her, but before he’d crossed half the length she sent him back to where he’d started with another flick. It took him about ten tries before he finally sat back down, somehow managing to make his exhausted panting sound angry. “Starting to get the picture, pal? You’re outmatched.”
“This supposed to scare me?” he asked breathlessly, leaning on the wall of the roof.
“Nah,” Presto said, gesturing with her wand again. The next instant Eric was ten stories above us, screaming as he fell back toward the hard gravel rooftop. The second before he made impact she used her wand to teleport him upward again, making him fall in a continuous loop for the equivalent of hundreds of feet before he appeared safely back on the building with none of his latent momentum. “That was supposed to scare you. Ready to talk yet?”
“Eat...” he wheezed out, between desperate gulps for air. “Shit...”
She raised an eyebrow at him, idly fiddling with her wand. “Is that your final answer?”
He held up a clawed hand, taking a few more moments to catch his breath. “Fine,” he grumbled, sounding like he was getting his teeth pulled. “What do you want to know?”
I took a step forward, standing alongside Presto. “When the creepy suit was paying you guys you said the offer was for more than just money. What else did this… ‘Prodigy’ person give you?”
He was silent for a few moments, long enough that I started to worry he’d changed his mind. “The suit, he was giving us dirt on the other gangs on an encrypted hard drive. Weaknesses, plans, secret headquarters, shit like that.”
Presto shook her head, quietly chuckling. “I gotta appreciate the balls it takes to try and con me of all people, but you really ought to leave it to the professionals.”
“The fuck are you talking about?” Eric demanded, his anger hiding an undercurrent of worry in his voice.
She rolled her eyes at him. “I have lie detector tech, numbnuts. How about we try this again?” Another flick of her wand and he was sent high up into the air yet again, falling back down over and over and over again. His screams shifted in pitch and volume as he fell, the genuine terror in his voice sending chills down my spine.
“Presto,” I said, voice coming out quieter than I’d intended.
She turned away from the eternally falling lion man, seemingly having no trouble timing his teleports while looking at me. “You need something, Sepulcher?”
I took a deep breath, steeling myself. “Can we… can we talk about this? It doesn’t feel right.”
“Sure,” she said, sending Eric back to his place on the rooftop. He laid flat on his back, greedily sucking in air. “You just sit tight, the two of us are gonna have a little chat and then we’ll be right back with you.”
I stepped away from him, toward the other side of the rooftop where he’d be less likely to hear us. Presto followed, looking bemused. “Can you make it so he can’t hear us?” I asked when she got close enough.
“Already done,” she said casually, spinning her wand around her fingers. “So what’s the problem? You worried I’ll slip up and make him go splat?”
“I… well, kind of,” I said, struggling to get my thoughts into order. “But that’s not really the primary issue.”
She ‘hmmed’, tapping a finger on her chin. “If it makes you feel better I’m not actually teleporting him with the wand, I slapped a device that does all of that on him when I flicked his ear earlier. It’s got a bunch of redundant safety features, I had it vetted by the PRT and everything.”
“That’s a relief to hear,” I said, wondering if the wand actually did anything or if it was just a prop. “But like I said that’s not the primary issue. It’s more that this whole method of interrogation seems kind of… fucked up. Isn’t this essentially threatening him with death in a really visceral way?”
She snorted. “I think this guy can take it. You realize he’s a killer, right? More than a few people on the Bastards’ shitlist ended up mauled to death while he was in the area, not to mention participating in kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment of innocent people. Oh and yeah, he almost caved your fucking ribs in!”
“Well yeah,” I said, finding myself strangely warmed by Presto’s protectiveness. “But… that still doesn’t give us the right to hurt him more than strictly necessary to protect others.”
“It’s not like I’m beating the shit out of him,” Presto said, impatience leaking into her voice. “I’m just scaring him a little. Besides, it’s not like I get off on terrifying people or something. This is important information, shit that can save lives. Why should this asshole’s convenience get a higher priority than that?”
“I’m not saying it should,” I said, keeping my voice level with an effort. “It’s just that I think we should exhaust more options before resorting to something that seems like a short step from waterboarding someone.”
Presto groaned aloud, violently rolling her eyes. “What ‘options’? I don’t recall you having any particularly useful ideas before I showed up to interrogate him for you. And seriously, this is coming from the girl that gave a half dozen Bastards the Hannibal Lector treatment last week? Where the fuck is this coming from?”
I froze, replaying the actions I took while in the throes of my thinker power in my mind’s eye. Suddenly everything shifted, taking on an entirely new light. I thought I’d managed to reign my power’s worst tendencies in sufficiently, but in retrospect it was obvious that my lack of emotion had colored every choice I’d made that night. Fuck, it was no wonder the Bastards I’d captured had all been so strangely cooperative afterwards. I’d terrorized them into compliance.
“That’s not...” I started, voice coming out weakly. There really wasn’t any way forward aside from telling her about my thinker power, but I just couldn’t think of what to say. Would she think I was frightening? Inhuman? I didn’t know if I could stand getting rejected like that.
She sighed and squeezed her eyes shut, rubbing her forehead. “I’m sorry Sepulcher, that wasn’t fair. You were in a life or death situation for the f- for one of the first times. There wasn’t time to carefully plan everything out, you had to go on instinct. I get it.”
“No, you have a point,” I said, gathering my strength for what came next. “There’s a reason I acted so… differently last week. It’s not that I panicked, the truth is actually sort of the opposite. It’s that when I use my thinker power, my thoughts and actions get disconnected from my emotions. The more deeply I use it the stronger the effect is, to the point where when it’s all the way up I’m sort of like a Terminator. Just single-mindedly pursuing the goals I set for myself, with no concern for fear or pain or hesitation.”
Presto rubbed her chin. “A Terminator… you mean the movies with those robots from the future that look like Sylvestor Stallone?”
I nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, from the 80’s.”
“I kinda see what you mean. So you didn’t actually realize you were scaring the shit out of them?”
I made a so-so gesture. “It was partly that and partly that I’d tunnel visioned on rescuing the hostages to the point where the Bastards didn’t really register to me except as obstacles. Even when I turned my power off briefly to check myself for injuries I still didn’t think of it.”
“That… explains a lot, actually. You’ve been using this pretty regularly while we talk, haven’t you? I remember a lot of times you got this weirdly distant look in your eye.”
“Well, yes,” I said, blushing under my mask. “It’s useful when I need to think clearly or talk myself down from a panic attack.”
“Does that happen often?” she asked, voice oddly gentle.
“Yeah,” I said. “More since… since my roommates and everything. Are you worried? About how my thinker power works, I mean?”
Presto shrugged. “Nah, I figured there was something like that going on. Sometimes with powers you just gotta accept that things ain’t always gonna be clean and pretty. And besides, if there’s anyone I’m not worried about having a power like that it’s you.”
“You really think so?” I asked, completely failing to hide the skepticism in my voice.
“Of course,” she said, fondly rolling her eyes at me. “You’re one of the nicest people I know. And maybe more importantly, you actually think shit through before you do it. Unlike some other folks also standing on this roof.”
“Are you referring to yourself or Eric?” I asked, amusement coloring my voice.
She smirked. “Can’t it be both? Anyway, you wanna keep going? You can lead the rest of the interrogation.”
“Sure,” I said, walking back toward the lion man and taking up what I hoped was a sufficiently intimidating heroic pose in front of him. “Are you ready to talk now? Presto’s awfully eager to practice some more of her juggling, I’d suggest you cooperate.”
He sighed, head leaning back against the short concrete wall. “It was some kind of tinker shit. It’s shaped kinda like a gun, you’re supposed to jab it into someone’s neck to copy skills from them and then give them to someone else. I swear that’s all I know, now could you please stop it with the fucking teleporting?”
“Well if you insist,” Presto said, practically radiating smugness. “Just sit tight and the vans will be here before you know it.”
I leaned back on the concrete railing, mentally preparing myself for the talk I’d promised her once we got back to the Needle. I had a feeling it was gonna be a real doozy.