Blades & Barriers: Chapter 75

                The blast of cold was a welcome surprise; coming out of the tropical heat into the building’s air conditioning was like stepping through to another world. The sunshine was gone; in its place were white walls around metal fixtures. Simplistic and functional, this was a building designed for longevity over aesthetics. It was merely meant to contain important things; the structure itself had no inherent meaning.

                Directly in front of the entrance, several feet away from a single door leading deeper in, was a woman with short-cut hair, hunched over a large desk as she pounded away on a keyboard. For a few moments, she didn’t greet, or if fact even seem to notice, the group. It was only after Justin let out a sharp cough that she finally looked up from her work.

                “Can I help you?”

                “We’re here to see the memorial. This is the right place, isn’t it?” DV didn’t seem to harbor any actual doubt as he lifted up the map from the hotel, pointing to their current location.

                The woman’s eyes widened and she hurried to stand from her chair. “Yes, yes it is. Forgive me; it’s been a long while since anyone new came here on my shift. Most of our residents show themselves in, and the few Blessed who have been coming to United Avalon aren’t always curious about history. Right then, since this is your first time at the memorial, so does that make it your first journey to our fair nation?”

                “It is,” DV confirmed. “We’re here on a company vacation, but it seemed a shame not to learn more about the country as a whole, especially being Supers ourselves.”

                For a second, it seemed as though the woman was going to correct DV, her mouth opening quickly. It closed moments later, though, taking a pause before actually speaking. “I understand that your term is more commonly used in the world at large, however we don’t call ourselves Supers here. It’s a small matter to me, although others take it more seriously. Anyway, let me see your temporary citizenships and we can get this underway. Oh, and my name is Eleni, I’ll be your guide this afternoon. If you have any questions as we go, please feel free to ask.”

                The examination of documentation went quickly, just as it had with the guard at the gate. Once again, the only hiccup was when Eleni got to DV, looking over his papers longer than any of the others before finally handing them back over. Interestingly, as soon as the last temporary citizenship was verified, Eleni grew visibly less nervous, her entire body taking on a more casual posture.

                “Thank you for your patience. Now that I know you’re all properly allowed to be here, let’s see how much context you need before we get things going. Tell me, what do you know about the history of United Avalon?”

                It was DV who answered, not missing a moment as he launched into a quick overview of United Avalon’s rebellion from the Republic of Krezic, their founding of a new country, and eventual overtures of diplomacy with other nations. The explanation was thorough, but detached, the sort of information that lacked a human touch and betrayed that it came from research rather than experience.

                When DV was done, Eleni gave a single, solemn nod. “That’s about where most new Blessed start off. The founding of a nation run by those with abilities was bound to garner attention on an international scale. Especially since we had to topple an existing country to create it. None of what you’ve heard is wrong, either. The overall story is correct. But what we haven’t permitted to fully escape the borders of our country are the details. All the reasons we felt the need to rebel, and the cost of what fighting back took from us.”

                “How do you keep that information controlled?” Justin asked, his curiosity momentarily getting the better of him.

                “We only give it to other Blessed,” Eleni replied.

                “And?”

                “And nothing.” She shrugged, as if that should say it all. “Our kind choose not to share it with the humans. Each and every one makes that decision on their own. There are no laws against sharing, no secret agency of the government holding it under wraps. But there is one thing that keeps most lips sealed, the fundamental aspect that impacts Blessed, Cursed, and mundane alike: self-preservation. To see what has been done to us is to know that someone could do it again, and no Blessed I’ve ever met feels safe enough to start putting such ideas in the humans’ heads.”

                The only sound in the room as Eleni finished was the dull hum of the air conditioner struggling to keep this place cool in spite of the external temperature. Eventually, Angela stepped forward, eyes on the simple door to the left of Eleni’s desk. “Standing around doesn’t get us anywhere, so you may as well start the tour. I can’t imagine any of us are going to turn away just because we might see something unpleasant.”

                “I’m surprised, even among our own people there are several who usually walk out when they get that speech.”

                Brett raised his hand, then quickly began to speak as soon as he realized no one would be calling on him. “Wouldn’t your own citizens already know what had happened?”

                 “Do you know every action your government takes against every person, and the details of every covert operation they try to keep off the public radar?” Eleni shook her head. “No, for most of the Blessed here, our former republic was merely a bad place to live, one where their powers were seen to exist only to serve the government. The ones with weaker abilities were allowed to take on semi-normal lives, using those powers in whatever way the rulers saw fit. It was the ones who had real potential that saw the worst of our former country. They were taken from their families as soon as those gifts were detected, never allowed to contact them again. In many cases, the records of those relations were outright destroyed. The only family they were permitted were their handlers. No support structure means no one to turn to, no hope that they might break free. The humans were wily, they knew they couldn’t hold this many Blessed down with pure force, so they used emotional and mental manipulation to make their prisoners pliable. It didn’t always work, of course, but dealing with one rogue Blessed isn’t such an issue when you have so many of them brainwashed to serve.”

                Eleni picked up a silver remote from her desk and clicked it once. The nearby doors swung open, revealing a dark hallway with a piercing light shining from just around a corner. “That’s where we start: with the world as it was just before the rebellion. Pictures, testimonies, and a few scraps of video. Not much, such recordings were obviously forbidden, but enough to give you an idea of what we were living through. After that, we will move on to the project that The Republic of Krezic kept the most tightly guarded. I would advise anyone with a weak stomach to not look at the videos in that room. Don’t worry; I’ll make sure to give ample warning before we get there.”

                One-by-one, the group made their way into the dark hallway, with Eleni bringing up the rear. With a quick look down the road to make sure no more guests were on the way, she clicked the remote again, closing the doors behind them.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 74

                In a lot of ways, traveling in United Avalon didn’t feel all that different from being home. It was just being surrounded by people who were walking, chatting, getting through their day. Sure, the signs looked different and everything important was printed if half-a-dozen languages, but overall it was just like taking a shuttle from anywhere else. Except for the times it wasn’t.

                During their time riding from the hotel to the museum, the interns saw a man fly overhead, two women easily hauling massive hunks of rubble away from a construction site, and a group of children where one kept teleporting around in a game of tag. Any of these things were sights they could have seen back home, yet they rarely ever did. Outside of the HCP, being different was dangerous. Not every human took well to the idea that their neighbor could see through the walls, or that their new coworker was worlds better at the job by twist of genetics. The end result was that, at least publicly, people tended to only use their abilities for a purpose, never just for fun. Supers were fine so long as they were benefitting or entertaining humanity, but not everyone knew how to deal with them outside that context.

                The group disembarked the shuttle outside the museum, a surprisingly big structure with giant glass windows running all along the front. This allowed them to see inside to the lobby, where a few people were milling about, some buying tickets while others looked at the large murals adorning the lobby walls.

                “Worth our time?” Brett asked.

                DV shook his head. “Probably not. Human-friendly, which means the information here is going to be tightly controlled. It might be worth swinging through after the memorial though, just for the sake of context. It’s better to know the story they’re telling humans, in case we have to argue against it down the line. For now, we just focus on the truth. Hopefully that’s what we’ll find at the Super-only section, but stay skeptical. Trust nothing this place tells you.”

                With one glance at his map, DV pointed the way down a nearby walking trail and set off. It was a couple of miles to reach the memorial, a distance that would have been annoying to most but for trained Heroes may as well have been across the street. The only reason they didn’t jog there was to avoid drawing attention. For the most part, the walk was simple and serene, passing a few ponds and lots of trees as they made their trek. Roughly a half-mile from the goal, however, they reached a large metal fence with a guard station set in the middle of the path. There was a burly man already standing outside it, clearly waiting for them. Apparently United Avalon took the human-free zones quite seriously.

                One by one, the guard looked over their paperwork, nodding each person through. He squinted a tad longer at DV’s temporary citizenship, enough to make the others wonder how this would go down, before finally admitting him through as well. They were well-past the guard station before anyone spoke again, and it was Justin who broke the silence.

                “You know, for a minute there I was almost confused. One guy, checking our papers. How does he know we aren’t creating illusions, messing with his mind, or using some other ability? There are so many powers to beat that checkpoint. So then I figured, he must be a neutralizer, but that’s crazy. I don’t care how many Supers this place has, there’s no way they’d put someone that rare on guard duty. Then, I looked at the fence, and it hit me: the guard doesn’t care if we use abilities to sneak past. That fence wouldn’t be a problem for loads of Supers, and that’s the whole point. It’s just meant to keep humans out; using powers to get through proves we have a right to be there.”

                “One of the upsides of using power as a measurement of worth, it’s much easier to vet and test,” DV concurred. “Of course, there are plenty of other issues from relying that sort of metric. Dividing a population based on raw ability devalues things like kindness, humanity, and cooperation. You become solely what you can do, rather than what you contribute to society as a smaller part of the whole. That’s why most Super-run nations fall apart. They all slip into the same trap of equating power with value, and the strongest Super isn’t always the one best qualified to lead.”

                The dead silence that greeted his words nearly bowled him over; all three interns were staring at DV like he’d lit himself on fire. Eventually, Brett finally put words to their faces, although his voice was strained and uncertain. “Isn’t… isn’t United Avalon the first Super-run nation?”

                “Officially, yes, but that only means they’re the first ones to make it this far. Did you really think that out of all the world, no one else had tried to form a nation of people with powers? It seems like a great idea, from the outside.  Of course, that ignores the fact that at our core Supers are still humans, with all the pettiness, selfishness, and short-sightedness that comes along with that. And nations need more than ultra-powerful citizens to function. People who think themselves above the common rabble don’t usually want to haul garbage for a living, but that’s still a vital job that has to get done, one of many that don’t carry enough ‘glory’ for the sorts that form those kind of countries. United Avalon left room for humanity, painting their separation as a concern of safety instead of one of superiority, and that’s why they’ve managed to find a semblance of stability. The rest were uprisings more than countries.”

                Angela, who had been uncharacteristically quiet during the shuttle ride, pointed to a small building just visible over the next hill. “If there’s any chance of finding out what makes this country different, I’d say that place is going to be one of our better shots. There’s bound to be something worth seeing if they don’t want humans to view it.”

                “Maybe, maybe not,” DV said. “Remember, United Avalon didn’t form as a country with the goal of making a homeland for Supers. It came from the crucible of rebellion, fighting off tyrants who viewed them as tools, rather than people. What we find in there might shine a light on the heart of this country, but it’s also entirely possible we’re about to see a reminder. Something kept for the sake of this nation’s Supers, a memory locked away to make sure they never forget what humans are capable of. Remember, this is a memorial, and very rarely are such things built for cheerful reasons.”

                “It sounds like you’re not even sure we’ll find anything valuable here.” Justin didn’t seem as though he was disagreeing with the assessment, more like he was simply curious to understand the motivation. Whether it was genuine or not was irrelevant, DV was just glad to see the kid using the right moves to get information he wanted.

                “There’s a very good chance all we’ll get from this is an afternoon of seeing and knowing things we might wish we didn’t. But we have to go anyway, because it’s not about playing the odds. If there’s even the slightest chance we’ll learn something useful, we have to take it. Real information isn’t handed out, you have to dig, fight, and claw your way to get it. Even on longshots, maybe especially on longshots. So no matter what we find in there, eyes open and heads up. You never know what detail may play a crucial role down the line. Don’t you dare miss it.”

                No one said much else for the rest of the walk, their minds were already wondering what they would find inside that building.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 73

                The map felt old school, and DV loved it. There was something to be said for analog, the days before everyone had a device in their pockets telling them all the information they needed with the touch of a finger. Information was a precious resource; no one knew that better than a Subtlety Hero, and like most things precious one had to be willing to put in some work to get it. Granted, the map wasn’t exactly an ideal tool, it was more akin to what one would expect to find at a high-end theme park in terms of how much topographical information it conveyed, but it was still the most useful tool in their welcome packet.

                Most of the other papers were barely educational, spitting out a few obviously crafted tidbits about the history of United Avalon and its presence as a nation open to all of those with powers. Some of the information was actually useful though, especially the parts regarding digital access. Since United Avalon was still a new country, part of their policy was to limit information to other nations, and a cornerstone for that was obviously internet control. Interestingly, they hadn’t gone the route of most tyrants by severely restricting access to certain sites. In fact, all citizens were able to view whatever legal sites they wanted, even encouraged to learn more about other countries. Given how most Supers were treated by their native lands, DV could see the upside to letting people do all the research they wanted: it would only make United Avalon seem better by comparison.

                What made UA’s internet unique was that it was incoming only. E-mail, messaging, and even phones worked normally when connecting to other United Avalon system, but the ability to talk to the outside world was restricted to only those who needed it, like the travel agent DV had used. He had no idea how they’d managed to make an internet system that only swung one direction, but given their resources and number of Supers, it probably wasn’t even the most impressive thing he’d find before the trip was done. Unfortunately, part of their “limited information” policy meant that GPS didn’t work in United Avalon, since that would allow visitors access to a map of the island. Thus, the old school maps, which to their credit featured plenty of activities, entertainment, sights worth seeing, and historical landmarks.

                “What’s the first stop?” Brett was leaning over, looking at the map from another angle. He and Justin had already gotten settled in their rooms, and Angela hadn’t even bothered to unpack in hers, she’d just thrown her suitcase through the door on the way to DV’s suite. That was where everyone was clustered, eager to hear about the next step in the plan.

                Justin peeked at the map as well, although he at least had the sense to stay out of the light and avoid casting a shadow. “Lots of good options. The museum seems like a solid place to get a sense of the history, or we can go to one of those markets and try talking to the locals.”

                “This one.” DV didn’t bother debating the merits of every possibility; to him there was an obvious choice to make. He tapped the map methodically, so that all of the interns could see what he was motioning to.

                “A memorial site for the war? I get it, you want to start where United Avalon technically began and go from there,” Brett said.

                It was Angela who corrected him, placing her own finger against the map’s legend. “That’s not the whole reason. See the small orange asterisk next to the location? It denotes places that only Supers are allowed to visit. No humans permitted. Since we went ahead and let them know we have abilities, we may as well get the most we can from our citizenships. Plus…” Angela paused, unsure how much of her suspicions she should risk saying out loud. Her eyes met DV’s, who gave the barest shake of his head.

                “…plus, it’s in walking distance to the museum, which shows a shuttle service from this hotel. We could knock out both in one afternoon, then come back here to check out the local scene around nightfall. Efficient use of our vacation time.”

                Brett nodded that he got it, however Justin was barely paying Angela any attention by this point. Instead he was craning over the map, staring at a small section in the northeast corner. “Has anyone else found a red asterisk? So far, I’ve only spotted one, but that can’t really be it.”

                “Just saw the one,” DV confirmed. The kid had good eyes, not to mention instincts. Angela had focused on where their enhanced access would allow them to go, which was a smart way to analyze their options. Justin, on the other hand, had zeroed in on the one place they weren’t allowed to enter, and that was the instinct of a Subtlety Hero. The others would still need an explanation, though. “Red asterisks means the only people allowed in are full citizens. Our temporary passes won’t get us in there.”

                “United Avalon Capital Complex.” Angela read the words out loud, like she was tasting them before accepting they were real. “Given the red asterisk and the name, I’ll be the one to take the obvious guess and assume that’s where their government does its work.”

                “Probably more than just that, given the size of the compound, but I think we can assume at least that much is going on. Presumably their officials would live there too; no sense in trying to lock down multiple locations.” DV checked the map once more, just to be certain he hadn’t missed anything. “Lucky for us, I can’t think of any reason we would need to visit the seat of United Avalon’s government. While I’m sure there are great sights to see, I bet they aren’t ready to entertain tourists yet.”

                That was the limitation to their trip, the landmine they had to walk around carefully. This group was not touring as Heroes; they were here as ordinary civilians. Just a group of four people seeing the country. As soon as they deviated from that, they were on their own. The government wouldn’t, literally couldn’t, back them up. So, much as he might have loved to take a look at United Avalon’s Capital Complex, the risks of sneaking in didn’t justify any potential gains. Not at this stage.

                Momentarily done with the map, DV turned his attention back to the welcome packet, soon grabbing another piece of paper. “Next shuttle is in twenty-three minutes. Everyone, go put on something comfortable, including sturdy shoes. It’s a bit of a walk to the memorial site from the museum.” Another page in the packet caught DV’s eye, so he gave it a quick skim. “Also, be sure to read through these informational guides they put in all the rooms. There are things here you should be aware of.”

                “Such as?” Justin asked.

                “Such as the fact that abilities are used freely in United Avalon, and quite publicly at that. We are encouraged to keep that in mind at all times, and not panic if something strange or unexpected occurs, especially if it is technically impossible. Using powers publicly is allowed in some other countries, like ours, but here it’s actively encouraged. Apparently, that makes a noticeable difference.” Holding up the sheet for them all to see, DV pointed to the section he’d just paraphrased. “New country. New social standards. It’s on us to be aware of them. If we mess up, that’s it. There are no second chances when you’re out this far from home.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 72

                Despite the fact that they were surrounded by a building of UA personnel, there were still some options available if the situation went south. Angela watched Ezio carefully as he spoke on the phone, waiting for the slightest tell that he was about to call in for back-up or attack them himself. Maybe he’d trip a secret switch under the desk to fill the room with gas or trigger something else needlessly complicated. By her estimates, she could slit Ezio’s throat before he got off a scream, meaning they’d only have to contend with unaware bureaucrats as they fought their way out. Not knowing any of the strangers’ powers made things riskier, but assuming her team struck with enough speed and force they would still have a good shot at getting out. The mission would be a bust, true, however that was a long stretch better than ending up in a secret prison outside of Hero jurisdiction.

                “Uh huh. Okay. Thanks so much, you have a great day too.” Ezio set the phone down, turning back to the four Supers tensely waiting to hear what came next. “As expected, no issues, my source was able to confirm that you are all indeed Blessed. Not many humans try to pass themselves off as our kind, so it’s more formality than anything. I appreciate your patience.”

                With a surprising speed that almost made Angela flinch, Ezio popped up from his desk and scooped up their forms. “If you’ll all just follow me, we can get your pictures taken for the temporary citizenships while I plug in your paperwork, and then you’ll be free to explore this lovely country.”

                Although she stayed aware, ready, and cautious, just like her grandfather had taught her, Angela’s energy was ultimately wasted. The next half-hour really was little more than a series of answering minor questions, posing for a snapshot, and then collecting their documents from a smiling Ezio. It was impossible to tell if they were simply swimming through normal bureaucracy, or it was all an evil front to hide something more sinister. Both options could be true, when Angela thought about it. Wicked empires probably still needed to keep track of stuff with paperwork, that wasn’t inherently a “good guy” thing.

                Finally, Ezio ushered them out of the building where they found a limo waiting for them. Brett looked over to Ezio, as though United Avalon had provided the transport, but when DV exchanged some quick words with the driver it became obvious that their guide had booked this transportation. They all piled in, Angela noting that the partition glass was up before they ever set foot in the back. She’d still choose her words carefully, glass didn’t mean other listening devices weren’t scattered about.

                “I can’t believe the higher ups were willing to spring for a limo.” She checked the mini-bar to find that it was largely empty, save for a few off-brand sodas and warm bottles water.

                “They weren’t. The cruise put me in touch with a travel agent here in United Avalon who handled transportation and lodging. This must be the car they had laying around when our ship came in.” DV took the opportunity to stretch his legs, enjoying the ample room their ride afforded them.

                “Does that mean our hotel is a grab bag too?” Justin asked.

                “No, for that one they gave me a few options to choose from. I picked a place that allows both humans and Supers to stay there, since I didn’t know what choice we’d claim until I saw all the variables. It’s a nice spot, good security, fine accommodations, and a central location to make it easy on us exploring.”

                “Good security?” Brett had finally been starting to relax, his tension in the interview room had been borderline tangible, but this pulled him up short. “Is that a concern we need to have?”

                “We’re strangers in a place we know almost nothing about. Yes, as a general rule I always choose accommodations with strong security when I’m getting the lay of the land. Maybe in later trips, when we know the area better, we can be a little more adventurous. For the first trip though, we’re new tourists, and we should make sure to think about our safety as we explore.”

                While it wasn’t exactly a subtle way to remind Brett of their cover, it did get the message to choose his words carefully across quite well. They didn’t know who was listening, or how the listening might be occurring, if it even was. From this point on, they were their cover stories unless DV told them specifically otherwise. At least they didn’t have to hide the fact that they were Supers, although keeping their exact powers under wraps was probably the smart call to make long-term. The whole situation was uncertain, dangerous, and exhilarating. So far, Angela had loved every second of it, sunburn included.

                There was more small-talk as the limo drove across the highway, a surprisingly wide and sturdy creation for a new nation so recently at war. Taking a closer look at the scenery, Angela began to notice that most of the buildings she could see also appeared fairly new. Or at least so well-cared for that the difference was hard to spot. America had never officially had war on its own land since the rise of Supers; however, thanks to criminals with power there had been more than a few fights which were virtually unmistakable from a war zone. She’d seen the destruction Super battles left behind, holding her grandfather’s hand as they walked the rubble that remained. Graham DeSoto had firm beliefs that anyone aspiring to be a Hero should know the cost of failure before they undertook the job, and made sure his grandchildren were aware of what they were getting into.

                United Avalon didn’t look like it had been the site of a recent rebellion. True, she was seeing random houses as a sample size, probably ones without strategic value. But the highway? No way, no fucking way neither side would target something this vital, especially once one of them was losing. It could be used to transport goods, ammo, even soldiers. Sooner or later, the highway would go. So, that left only a few options. The first, least likely one, was that somehow this highway from the port had avoided targeting during the war. Her second guess was that United Avalon had amazing, top-tier infrastructure for rebuilding in place. Not impossible, she’d seen how quickly cities could get repaired with enough money and Supers on the task, and while it would be surprising for a new country to have such an operation ready so fast, they did have Supers to spare.

                The limo turned, taking them off the highway, into a large city. Most of the buildings were between two and four stories tall, with some of the obvious hotels shooting up higher into the skyline. They passed a market, an outdoor mall, countless restaurants, and a few smaller resorts before finally turn in to see their own residence. It was nice, big iron gates in front that no doubt helped the humans feel safe. Like everything else she’d seen, the building was either new or incredibly well-kept, and as the gates parted Angela kept scanning for every detail she could take in.

                There was one more option for why United Avalon lacked battle scars. Well, there were technically endless more options, but only one was likely enough to warrant consideration. The simplest explanation was that UA lacked lasting damage because it hadn’t actually seen a war. The Republic of Krezic had been overthrown, that wasn’t in question. Perhaps, however, the new rulers had oversold the level of conflict.

                A nation of Supers against human oppressors. Maybe it had never really been a fight at all. And if the rest of the world discovered that… what sorts of ideas would it put in the heads of Supers living in other countries?

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 71

                Despite scanning for threats, frantic looks over their shoulders, and constant awareness of their surroundings, a trap refused to spring on the young Heroes. The days on the cruise slipped by one after another, everyone tensed and ready for an attack that never came. By the time they finally reached United Avalon, Brett and Justin felt less rested than when the cruise started, and even Angela had managed to get a slight sunburn on her shoulders from all the time at the pool. It was almost a relief to depart; at least once they were in UA there would be more to focus on than their own paranoia.

                The crowd of people getting off at the port was a bare fraction of what they’d seen when the cruise was departing. It seemed United Avalon wasn’t quite the tourist destination of the year quite yet, and out of the whole ship less than a dozen people stood with DV and the interns, waiting to exit. Brett noticed that Chelsea wasn’t among them, which fit the story she’d given him. Apparently her group’s plan was to hold out for one of the more human-friendly spots and go live it up on the beach for a few days. There had been a brief moment when Brett worried she’d get suspicious about him getting off at United Avalon, but he’d stuck to the cover story anyway: this was where the company set up their lodging and vacation, so it was where they had to go. To his shock, she didn’t bat an eye. It seemed most corporations were known for their cost-cutting and inflexibility well enough to sell the premise.

                Although she’d said she would track him down once they got back on the boat, Brett was glad to be away from Chelsea for a while. He’d dated before, even had a few steady girlfriends, but he could never get past the fact that there was no way to know if Chelsea was sincere in her affections or planning to betray him to United Avalon. It was a factor he’d never had to deal with in dating before. Unfortunately, the more Brett thought about it, the more he realized it was a worry he’d probably always have on some level moving forward, unless he dated another Hero. Anyone else, and Brett would have to wonder if they really wanted him, his position, or to trade his secrets for their own gain. No wonder so many Heroes dated among themselves.

                Romance was a distant thought as they finally made their way onto the dock. Angela and Justin were right next to Brett, and DV was leading them with all the disinterest of a middle manager forced into a chaperone job. His slumped shoulders and half-hearted looks to make sure they were in tow sold the charade well, even as a group of people wearing official-looking uniforms met all the cruise guests at the end of the pier, directing them into an office.

                It was a bland, white-walled building with the familiar flicker of fluorescent lighting overhead. If he hadn’t known better, Brett might have guessed he was back in America, about to wait in line at the DMV. To their credit, however, the workers were extremely efficient. In no time they’d gathered all of the passengers, checked passports against a registry of who they were expecting, and begun doing brief interviews before sending people on their way. Brett’s group had barely been waiting five minutes when a cheerful fellow with a clipboard appeared before them.

                “Hello there! My name is Ezio, and it’s a pleasure to meet you all. I’m told you’ve been traveling as a group so far, is that correct, Mr…” Ezio paused briefly, glancing down to his clipboard. “Ah, here we are, Mr. Valentine.”

                “Please, call me Doyle.” There wasn’t so much as a sliver of hesitation as DV responded to what was obviously a fake name. “And that’s correct, we’re all one group. We’d like to be interviewed as one, too. In a hurry to get our vacation started.”

                “Perfectly understandable, and you’ve even saved me the trouble of asking my next question.” Ezio tapped his clipboard once, then guided them over to one of a half-dozen identical doors along the wall. Popping it open, he motioned for them to all go ahead; then followed behind and locked it on his way in.

                The room had six chairs facing a desk, with a single seat on the other side. This was where Ezio plopped down as the others grabbed spots of their own. DV was positioned in the closest chair to the desk, since he was obviously going to be doing most of the talking.

                “I hope you’re all having a wonderful trip so far.” Ezio pulled out some forms from the desk as he spoke, then scrawled a few brief notes. “And that United Avalon only makes your vacation better. Now there are a few things to tackle in here, mostly questions about what you’re bringing and how long you’re staying, the same things you filled out when you signed up for the cruise, but we have as much government redundancy as your own. There is, however, one part of this interview that is unique to United Avalon.”

                Ezio took a long pause, looking up from his paperwork to make sure he met the eyes of everyone in the room for at least a few seconds. It wasn’t threatening, not exactly, but it certainly conveyed the seriousness of what he was about to ask. “Our country is a new one, still finding its footing, and so we’ve taken care to ensure that human visitors stay in areas where their safety is all but guaranteed. I don’t mean to say that United Avalon is some lawless land, only that there are parts of the island where the scars of our previous regime have still left some citizens bitter. For that reason, among others, I’m afraid I must ask if you are Blessed, or as you Americans would call it: Super. You are free to say no, whether it’s true or not, and I will issue you temporary human visas for your trip. Just be aware that there will be limits on where you can go and when, although I’m sure you’ll find more than enough entertainment and culture to stay plenty occupied before the cruise returns.”

                “And if we say we are Supers?” DV asked. None of them others were quite sure what the right move to make here was, there were risks and gains to both efforts. Situations like these were the reason an experience Hero was at their side, though, so the interns waited quietly, prepared to follow DV’s lead no matter where it took them.

                “If you say yes, I’ll make a quick call to confirm there are indeed four other Blessed in my office, and assuming that comes through I’ll issue you temporary citizenships.”

                Angela leaned forward slightly, her forehead creased. “You mean visas, right?”

                “No, citizenships,” Ezio confirmed. “United Avalon has taken the official stance that all Blessed are children of this country and welcome here. Your temporary citizenship will have some limits, albeit not many, and can be turned into a full citizenship by visiting an appropriate government office to have your powers evaluated.”

                None of the interns spoke again, instead they waited patiently for DV. If Ezio was telling the truth, and he really did have access to a Super that could confirm they were Supers without even being in the room, it seemed like hiding their powers was a waste of time. Then again, maybe Ezio had the power to tell when people were lying, or some other ability that would let him confirm their story, and this was merely a bluff. In the end, DV knew what choice he was going to make, just like he’d known it since the first time Daphne approached him on the boat. There was an entire government full of Supers in United Avalon, it was silly to think anyone powerful and interested wouldn’t be able to figure out DV was dragging three people with powers around. If they were going to be known as “Blessed” anyway, they might as well get the access-privileges from it. UA wanted to play it friendly, so DV was going to be friendly right back. As long as that got him closer to what the team needed.

                “We’re all Supers,” DV announced. “Although we prefer to live under the radar back home, so I’m hoping that doesn’t go on any official forms.”

                “Not to worry, we understand that other countries aren’t so accepting of those with our blessings.” Ezio picked up the phone and punched in a few numbers before flashing them all a reassuring smile. “And once I confirm your story, you won’t need to worry about such things anymore. I think by the time your trip is over you’ll have seen firsthand that United Avalon is more than happy to be a home for you, one where you never have to hide who you are.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 70

                Searching the ship hadn’t taken long. Nor had breaking in to the captain’s office and rooting around through his files and computers. DV had even found time to check-in on the interns he was watching over, not than any of them remembered. So far, the cruise was clean. No recent hires or guests that set off any warning bells for DV, although that assumed the files he’d read were accurate. Anyone with access to the money and Supers that United Avalon had could easily sneak a few agents onto this ship without raising suspicion. Hell, that was pretty much what DV and the kids had done, and they had to play by government rules. For someone with less ethics, it would be almost too easy.

                That was fine, however. DV was checking for overt threats, the sorts of things he’d be expected to discover. This was a small part of their journey, a stepping stone to the real dangers that awaited them when they came ashore. Only training and experience demanded he keep searching for something out of place. Such was the curse of the Subtlety Hero. Never could they fully relax or take things at face value. It was impossible for someone who had seen so much trickery and betrayal. One moment of peace, that was all it took to make a mistake. Subtlety Heroes didn’t often live through their errors, not unless they were very strong or very lucky.

                Personally, DV considered himself to be in both camps. His power certainly had its uses, but fortune had seen him through tough situations as much as skill. Still, he took precautions, precautions like not eating dinner at the same time and place as everyone else. That sort of thing would make it too easy for a cunning enemy to slip some poison into his food. Granted, such an act would be a bold move, especially with so many witnesses, yet he couldn’t shake the possibility.

                That was why DV was out on deck, looking at the stars overhead as he chewed down some pre-packed jerky he’d brought along for the trip. The food inside was almost certainly better, and it would be a nice moment to bond with the interns he was supposed to be caring for. The trouble was, DV didn’t bond. It was a hard thing to do when no one remembered him, and that wasn’t a policy he could risk changing anytime soon. Besides, bonds were just things people used to attack from unseen angles. Not always, not even often, but sometimes. And that was enough. Of all the uses DV’s power had, sometimes he dearly wished he could make himself forget things. It probably would have allowed him to lead a much happier life.

                Her approach was quiet, not in an attempt to be stealthy though. No, her steps were naturally soft, as was her every movement. It was the result of training that had gone past the brain, all the way down into the bone. DV noticed her as soon as she began moving toward him, soft steps be damned. Yet he made no move to distance himself. If she was coming up to him, then she might chat a little before making whatever move she had planned. Not only could he pump her for information, but once he slipped away she wouldn’t even realize she’d divulged it.

                “You have the light.” It was a curious opening line, made even stranger by the gentle sincerity in her voice.

                “Sorry, I don’t smoke.” DV patted his pockets to prove the point, even though he could have easily concealed a lighter in them.

                “I do not want a light. You have the light. A blessing, given by the gods. Yours shines brightly, so strong, burning with such ferocity. A powerful blessing indeed has been laid upon you; I do hope you’re using it well.”

                No subterfuge in her voice or tone, she wasn’t trying to play aloof at all. DV had been around the block enough to know that sincerity could be a con of its own, however. Regardless, this was a chance to get some advanced information, and he’d be a fool to let it slip through his fingers. “You know, the people of United Avalon call powers blessings. In fact, they call people with them Blessed, rather than Supers.”

                “Of course I know that. I am from United Avalon.” She was consistent in her approach, if nothing else. The woman bowed to DV, who found himself feeling briefly uncomfortable for the first time in recent memory. “My name is Daphne, and I am blessed with senses beyond the scope of mankind. I can smell war on the wind, hear love ring through the air, and see the light that shines in those who are blessed.”

                “And you just happened to be on this boat?” DV asked.

                Daphne shook her head, still calm and placid. “Certainly not. One of us rides on every such vessel, here to search for those with blessings. We carry a message with us, one that must be passed on to each of our kind.”

                Something in DV’s gut tensed, and he scanned the deck for any potential backup or ambushes that might be about to spring. She was playing the peaceful part to perfection, which was usually how it went right up until guns and powers came out. On the other hand, if she was telling the truth about seeing powers then Daphne could have picked a better spot to take him by surprise. Either way, he had to see this through. “Let’s hear the message, then.”

                With a gentle smile, Daphne spread her arms wide. “Welcome, brother. Welcome home. We await you patiently, and will celebrate greatly when you arrive. No matter what cause brought you here, no matter what agenda you carry with you, in United Avalon you are eternally welcome. We know that the nations of the world may have sent you for any number of reasons, but you need not fear us. As a Blessed, United Avalon is your true homeland, regardless of where you were born.”

                “And if I happen to like the nation I come from?” DV asked.

                “Then by all means, return there, if you like. Our kind are managed, catalogued, and persecuted all over the world. United Avalon will not treat you in such a way. Come and go as you please. Or make a home there, in a place where you are not a commodity to be trained and used.”

                “I notice they put you to work.”

                Her smile only brightened as she shook her head. “You misunderstand. I chose this vocation. Because once, I was a scared young woman fleeing those who would use my gifts to their own ends. United Avalon freed me, kept me safe. I’ll never forget how it felt to finally have a homeland, so I take great joy in spreading that news to others. Doubt me if you wish, good sir, it is only my job to tell you the message. United Avalon itself will prove the message to be true.”

                With another bow, Daphne turned and walked back across the deck, vanishing as she stepped through a door. DV stared for some time, making sure she wasn’t about to run back at him, before looking at the stars. Friendliness was an interesting way to let potential intruders know they’d already been made. It would put people off their game, unsure of how to proceed once their cover was blown. For DV, however, it was an old trick he’d seen before. He wasn’t that worried about Daphne or her cheerful spiel.

                No, the thing that worried DV was what would come once the friendliness stopped.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 69

                As it turned out, Justin’s cooking class had not been preparing lunch for the whole cruise. All things considered, he was actually slightly saddened by that, because his version of paella had come out much better than what was served across the ship. He’d gotten a bowl, just for comparison, then tossed it away after a few bites. It wasn’t like he had time for two lunches anyway, not with so many more classes to attend.

                In the crochet lessons, Justin met a small group of people nearing their elder years, out on the sea for a big hurrah while they could still get around. One of the older women had smuggled in flasks of booze inside her over-sized purse and was happy to share every time the instructor turned his back. Justin didn’t learn much about the cruise or United Avalon, since that group was all heading for the nearest beach with lots of tourist attractions, but he had a good time nonetheless.

                During CPR training, Justin found himself alongside a cluster of dudes from a frat who had clearly been drinking heavily before the class started. Although he was braced for all manner of stupid male ego bullshit, to his surprise they actually took the lessons very seriously. Or as seriously as possible when one had obviously started the day with beer against their lips. Justin eventually found out they were learning because one of the brothers had a heart condition and collapsed during the previous semester, so they all wanted to be able to help if it happened again. Once more, Justin got nothing about United Avalon, but it was hard to call the experience a waste of time.

                Only in his last class of the day, a cocktail mixing lesson that had filled up within the first hour of sign-ups being posted, Justin finally encountered someone else going to visit United Avalon. In this case, it was a married couple, both young and cheerful. Although they were certainly talkative enough, and the husband was more than happy to mention their destination, both grew cagey when Justin tried to carefully probe why they were going to visit such a place. He backed off instantly, retreating to nice small talk and sharing a few (fake) personal details to take the focus off United Avalon. They parted at the end of class, and while Justin had said nothing more he’d also made a point of noting them for further investigation. Not like he had much else to do while on this boat.

                With his day of classes complete until later that evening, Justin headed back to the cabin. Dinner was coming up soon, and from all accounts it was an occasion to dress up, if one so chose. Having spent his entire day chatting with fellow passengers, Justin had picked up enough to know that most people were planning to don nice clothes, so he was going to have to make some effort if he wanted to blend in. Justin only hoped that Brett had thought to pack something nice, even though they were on a mission.

                As he shoved open the door, Justin quickly realized that there might be other issues to tackle.

                “…and then she grabbed my ass, right there in front of everyone.”

                “Wouldn’t have pegged you as the shy type.” Angela’s voice was coming from her room, yelling slightly to be heard through the door while Brett stood in the shared mirror of the living area, tucking in a shirt that had been recently ironed.

                “I’m not shy, I’m just not used to someone so… aggressive. She’s really working hard to sell this cover.” Brett glanced over to the closing door, giving Justin a quick nod.

                “Yeah, or she’s someone who just got dumped and is flirting her ass off with the nearest hot stranger she can find. Don’t tell me you think boys have a monopoly on that, we’re on a schedule but I’ll make time to kick your ass before dinner.”

                Clearing his throat to make sure Angela knew he’d arrived, Justin locked the door behind him before finally joining the conversation. “I’m going to assume I missed some developments?”

                “That’s one way to put it,” Angela called. “Some girl is putting the moves on Brett, who is convinced she’s actually just trying to investigate him. I actually agree, but when I say the word ‘investigate’ I add in a few eyebrow wiggles and a wink to get the message across. Anyway, she maneuvered herself into having dinner with us tonight, then going dancing with Brett. He’s being all skittish though, so I was about to propose you and I pretend to be a couple so we can keep him company.”

                It wasn’t a terrible idea. The cruise turned one of the ballrooms into a mock-club for people to drink, dance, and generally be stupid at. Justin had been planning to skip it since he couldn’t think of an inconspicuous way to attend solo, but if Brett and Angela were both on board that opened up new possibilities. Drunk and active was just how he liked people when he wanted them to let something slip.

                “I’m fine with tagging along, but let’s skip the awkward charade of pretending we’re together. We don’t have that kind of chemistry, and besides, just because you’re in a relationship doesn’t mean I might not want to prowl the dance floor while we’ve got time to kill.”

                “See, this is why Justin is more fun than you, Brett.” The door swung open, revealing Angela like they’d never seen her before. Despite the day in the sun, she was only slightly red on her shoulders, clearly much care with sunscreen and shade had been used. They could see the red though, because she was wearing a shapely strapless black dress with silver trim. Her hair was up and styled, with a delicate splash of make-up across her face. It was easy to forget that under all the cursing, blood, and chaos, Angela was actually quite lovely.

                “Bet you’re rethinking pretending to be my boyfriend now.”

                “And have to dress up nice enough to match that? Thanks, but no thanks. I didn’t pack a full tuxedo,” Justin replied. “I’m doing slacks and a tie, at most. We are still in our early-twenties, Brett and I can’t look too put together.”

                 Brett’s head jerked away from the mirror. “Wait, am I over-dressed?”

                Justin and Angela met eyes, both having noted the wrinkles on Brett’s slacks and the white socks tucked into his dress shoes. In the end, it was Justin who responded, if only because he was the more diplomatic of the pair. “You look perfect, Brett. I only wish we could blend in as naturally as you do.”

                “I realize you’re making a joke, but as long as I don’t have to change I really don’t care that much.” Brett adjusted the tuck on his shirt one last time. “Hurry up though, Justin. We’ve got dinner reservations to make, and apparently I have a date that I can’t keep waiting.”

                As Justin began digging in his suitcase, Angela let out a snicker behind him. “Are you sure you’re not anxious because you want to see your new gal? She’s cute, there’s nothing wrong with being excited for a night out.”

                “We’re on a mission,” Brett reminded her.

                “You’ll always be on a mission. That’s your world now.” For a moment, some of the laughter left Angela’s voice. “Don’t put off living until you think there will be time for it. There won’t be. This is it. This is all you get. So use it.” Then, as if the moment of seriousness had never happened, Angela was light on her feet once more. “And if she goes for a secret hand-job under the table, try not to let us realize it’s happening. This is a fancy dress dinner, so show a little class.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 68

                There was an art to being a shitshow. If an amateur wanted to act like a drunken idiot tourist, they’d make a big spectacle of buying a bunch of shots and slamming them all down one after the other. But the thing was, that came with too much intent. A real shitshow didn’t start the day planning to be blackout drunk. No, they kicked things off with the best of intentions, having a few drinks because it was a vacation, but then the sun is a tad hotter than they expect so maybe they drink a little too fast. And then they happen to approach the bar just when a group is doing their own set of shots, so to be cordial the shitshow joins in. The descent into drunken silliness should seem more like a slippery slide than a dive right into the deep end.

                Angela knew this art well. Both from real experience, and from faking it a few times. The best way to pretend to be an expert at something was to actually be an expert, after all, and no one knew how to sell being a hot mess quite like Angela DeSoto. Of course, the key part of this charade was that it took time to execute properly, so after a mere hour she was still laying the groundwork, making regular trips to the bar and progressively spilling a little more each time to show that decaying motor function.

                As she took her cocktail and laid back down on a plastic reclining chair, pausing only to reapply sunblock, Angela let her head casually sweep around the pool’s deck. So far, everyone here seemed to be on the up and up. Oh sure, there was the occasional plain-clothes cruise security officer, here in case anyone got a little too rowdy no doubt, but those were easy to pick out from the crowd. The rest were mostly tourists, with an occasional staff member sprinkled in. Parents with kids, college students on vacation, older couples seeing a few last sights with their fading time. Angela sort of envied that last batch. The odds that she’d make it to that age were low, and there was a good chance that when her end came there would be no opportunity for final trips or bucket-lists. Which made it all the more important to enjoy her time now, while she still had breath to draw.

                By her estimates, the amount of activity at the pool would only increase through the day as the weather grew warmer. That was why she’d come early to stake out a prime spot for people watching. When the crowd grew, it would be the perfect place to check out for anyone looking to spot undercover Heroes. Angela would be there, ready, a well-established patron of the bar and inconsequential tourist easy to overlook. And, when someone came looking for Heroes, she would be watching for them. With any luck, she might be able to spot a couple of UA advanced guards before it was time for dinner. Or maybe none would show up, and this would remain a simple cruise. Angela doubted it, but she had to remind herself to allow for that possibility. Seeing an enemy or conspiracy around every corner could be just as dangerous as not noticing the ones right in front of her.

                Angela had just finished reapplying suntan lotion to her stomach when she spotted a familiar face wander into her line of view: Brett was here. Only, he wasn’t alone. Somehow he’d embedded himself in a group that was either just out of college or very near it, with a lovely young woman gripping his arm tightly. Since she didn’t know what kind of scheme he was running, Angela didn’t wave or call out to him. The last thing she wanted to do was undermine another Hero’s efforts at blending in. Evidently, the concern was unneeded, since the moment Brett’s eyes fell on her he gave a big, theatrical wave. The woman on his arm waved as well, although not with nearly the same amount of enthusiasm. After a brief few seconds of discussion, Brett broke away from the group and made his way over to Angela.

                “Someone works fast. Were you flexing shirtless outside the cabins, waiting to see who would take the bait?” Angela reached over to the chair next to her, where she’d been storing her book and pool bag, pulling them off to make room for Brett.

                He sat down on the edge of the chair, not getting too comfortable. “Actually, I was just standing there, looking out at the ocean, and that girl, Chelsea, called out to me.”

                “The quiet, soulful look, huh? Not my cup of tea, but I get it, some gals go for that. Especially when you mix the dude staring at an ocean with one who obviously works out. So what are you over here talking to me for? Sounds like you’ve got quite a fun day already waiting for you.”

                “You asked us to check on you after an hour,” Brett reminded her.

                That was true; she had requested a check-in, although she didn’t think they’d actually expect her to need looking after. It was just a premise they could use to compare information. “Yeah, well, as you can see I am doing just fine. Got my drink in hand and the right amount of sun on my body. Go chat up your new friend and have some fun. Do it soon, too, because I’m way too hot for you to talk to without making someone interested jealous.”

                “I mean, if she was actually interested in me, sure, that might be an issue.” Brett’s eyes were bulging, he was trying much too hard to get the point across. She should have been annoyed, but part of Angela found it endearing. The far-too-earnest types made it out of the HCP quite a bit, so she’d grown up dealing with their type. Brett clearly thought Chelsea was someone who had called him over to pump him for information on the sly. Things like this were why Lander did its river trip: some people needed to remember how normal, non-Hero social interaction worked.

                “You’ve never been on a cruise like this, have you?” Angela asked.

                “My dad and I took one when I was a kid, but I don’t remember that much of it.”

                “About what I figured.” Swinging herself to a sitting position, Angela adjusted her angle slightly so that no one could see her mouth. She didn’t need lip-readers mucking things up. “Brett, you might be overthinking this one. I’m pretty sure that Chelsea is indeed interested in you, based on the looks she keeps throwing over here. Now obviously we haven’t met, so I can’t say for certain, but just entertain the idea that her attraction to you is genuine and proceed from there. And get out of here, this has been more than enough time to check on me. If she asks why this ran so long, tell her I was trying to convince you to run to the bar and get me more drinks. Paint me as a lazy lush, that should help keep me from seeming like a threat.”

                “Okay, but…” Brett trailed off, looking over to Chelsea with a sudden uncertainty in his eyes. “But… wait, what am I supposed to do if it is all genuine then? Should I ditch her?”

                “Hell no, are you kidding me? As far as covers go, slipping in with an actual bunch of drunk people our age is one of the best, easiest to sell stories we can hope for. If it wouldn’t fuck up your dynamic, I’d go join you. Ride this out, you’ll be making our jobs all the easier. And hey, if you happen to get laid along the way, that’s just a bonus.”

                Whipping back around, Angela fell heavily into the chair and scooped her drink up once more. She was marking the conversation as done, forcing Brett to go back to his group. He took the cue and headed off, still looking unsure of himself. All the better, though. The less capable he seemed, the less likely someone would mark him as an undercover Hero. Hopefully he could keep the charade up for the few days they had until landing at United Avalon.

                And personally, Angela really did hope Brett and Chelsea hooked up. The guy was a walking pile of nerves; he could use a little leisure time activity.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 67

                In the end, Brett opted to use his time before checking on Angela to do something he rarely had time for in the Hero world: standing still. Finding a nice perch along the deck, Brett leaned against the railing and stared out at the open ocean stretched before him. He got plenty of ocean views living in Port Valins, the “port” part of the name rather gave away their proximity to water, but it felt like he’d yet to take a moment to truly appreciate them. Actually, he’d rarely had any time to pause long before joining the Wayward Wraiths. Getting through the HCP had been one ordeal after another, challenge after challenge as he fought to not only graduate, but to make it out as the best in the class.

                And yet, for all of that work, for all of that struggling and self-denial, Brett had taken his first loss to a woman who was probably double-fisting margaritas at that very moment, seemingly unconcerned with the dangerous, barely legal, mission before them. Sometimes, it was hard not to wonder: was Angela just that much better than him, or was there an unseen wisdom in how she lived? Did that crazy attitude give her an advantage? It was a silly notion, and Brett tried to dismiss it as such every time it popped up, yet her record made it hard to ignore entirely. Maybe he should be making more time for these quiet moments, or getting mixed up in unexpected situations. Then again, if someone told him right then that there was a place he could sneak off to secretly train more, Brett would have jumped on it in a heartbeat. Perhaps he was simply wired differently from Angela, and he needed to find his own version of double-fisting margaritas.

                “Hey.”

                The voice seemed to come from nowhere, but when Brett snapped out of his fugue he noticed a small group, slightly more women than men, making their way along the deck. One of the ladies in the pack was staring at him, making it very clear she was the person who’d spoken.

                “Sorry, did you mean me?”

                “No, the other hot slab of muscle leaning against the railing.” She was grinning, and it was an expression that suited her face quite nicely. “My friends and I have gotten this day started right, and we’re heading to a pool to keep the party going. You want to tag along?”

                Brett wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Nothing felt dangerous about the situation, yet his nerves tensed all the same. He was suddenly very aware of how alone he was, and how easy it would be to end up overboard. “I’m sorry, have we met?”

                “Huh, I guess we did skip that part.” She hopped forward and stuck out a hand. “Name is Chelsea, and I get a little forward when I’m buzzed, if you can’t tell.”

                “Oddly, I’m kind of used to it. I’m Brett. Nice to meet you.”

                “Meeting is good, but hanging out would be more fun.” She didn’t back up after the handshake, instead moving in closer. “What do you say, Brett? Could staring at the ocean wait for a while so you can keep a lonely lady company?”

                Brett nodded to her group of friends. “Seems like you’ve got plenty of company.”

                “All couples. Every last one of them. And I was going to be part of one too, until three days ago when my boyfriend up and decided to get back with his ex.” Chelsea’s arm wound around Brett’s, a clumsy maneuver that actually made the gesture slightly endearing. “So I could spend my non-refundable vacation watching them all be lovey-dovey, or I could get to know someone new, someone with kind eyes and who clearly spends a lot of time in the gym. How about you, Brett? How do you want to spend your day?”

                This had to be a trick. Some kind of tactic to get his guard down so that Brett would let slip the real reason he was on the boat. It was a good approach; the backstory sure explained why someone would be so eager to spend time with him. Once Brett reached that conclusion, the obvious question became a simple one: was he better served by playing along or brushing Chelsea off? Since he was on-guard, it felt unlikely he’d make a mistake, but then again there could be other Supers in play. Still, this was a chance to try and see if she would mistakenly offer up useful information, and Brett was loathe to let such an opportunity pass him by.

                Ultimately, Brett decided that it would be easier to play along for a while, then sneak off and consult with DV for advice, rather than blow her off now and try to reconnect later. They had two days. With guidance from the Subtlety members of the team, Brett might just be able to turn this whole thing around to their advantage.

                “I’d be interested in coming, but it sort of depends which pool you’re going to. I promised a friend I would check in on her soon, and she’s already at one.”

                Chelsea’s face pinched slightly at the news, she was really committed to playing this part, apparently. “A female ‘friend’ huh? You wouldn’t be trying to shrug off your girlfriend for the trip, would you? Because I’m not looking to get someone else hurt.”

                The laugh surprised everyone, even Brett, the one who had let it out. “No, I can say with certainty that there is nothing remotely romantic between Angela and me. She’s really not my type, and even if that weren’t the case she already has a boyfriend. We’re just friends from work.” At least they’d worked out the cover story in advance. So far as anyone on the boat would know, this was a trip they’d won for strong performances over the last quarter at the company where they all interned. It had been crafted to be as boring as possible; apparently that kept people’s questions to a minimum.

                “Well then, as long as she’s at one of the big pools with a bar, I bet we can make that our destination.” Chelsea leaned in closer, more than was needed really, whispering in Brett’s ear. “As the recent victim of a dumping, I’ve got a lot of sympathy cards I can play with that group.”

                Pulling him over toward her cluster of friends, Chelsea brought Brett to the front of the group. “Lead us to the pool of your friend, good sir. And perhaps along the way, you can tell me a little more about what is your type.”

                Not entirely sure he wasn’t making a rookie mistake, Brett started heading toward the pool where Angela would be waiting. He really hoped she hadn’t gotten too far into the drinks just yet; this whole situation was feeling more and more out of his depth.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 66

                When he became a Hero, Brett had been prepared for a slew of new experiences. Fighting criminals in the streets, seeing all sorts of new Supers and abilities, traveling across the nation to help in whatever way his particular power was needed. Two days on a cruise, while certainly a new experience, was not something he’d been mentally prepared for, however.

                Checking in was pandemonium. Thousands of people all pushing their way onto a boat, showing tickets and getting slowly directed to their accommodations. Once they finally got to their room, there was a measure of peace. Apparently DV had booked them a small suite, consisting of two bedrooms as well as a shared living space and bathroom. It was hardly decadent or spacious, but compared to hiding in the hull of a fishing boat like he’d expected it was positively decadent. Angela got a bedroom to herself by default, while Justin and Brett doubled up in the one hosting bunk beds. Not great, but still better than a dorm.

                They’d barely gotten settled when DV arrived, having dropped off his own bags, with the promised cell phones. Each had virtually the same number, DV’s included, with only the last digit changed for every phone. Once he seemed satisfied that they had the numbers memorized, he told them to wait for texts and blend in. Also, not to go crazy with charging things to the room. Somebody would have to settle the bill when all was said and done.

                 After that, DV was gone, and they were left to their own devices. That first night was simple enough, the three under-cover Heroes hit up the provided buffet, dining on loads of shrimp and shellfish while Angela polished off what had to be an unhealthy amount of wine. When the food was all eaten, they took a walk around the cruise ship, familiarizing themselves with their surroundings, just in case. The odds of having to make a quick escape or launch a surprise attack while at sea were minimal, but none of them would feel at ease until they could do those things, should the occasion demand. Once they knew the layout of their temporary home, they all turned in.

                It was the next morning that Brett hit a hurdle, facing an enemy he hadn’t dealt with since starting the fast-paced life of a newly graduated Hero: boredom. There was nothing to do. Well, no, there were plenty of ways to amuse himself, classes and shows and lounging areas seemingly without end. The trouble was that those were distractions, and Brett was accustomed to actually using his time. Training, research, patrols, studying, all of these were things that he knew he should be doing. But Brett wasn’t Barrier on this boat, not so far as anyone knew. He was just Brett Rhodes, a normal guy here to take a brief vacation.

                Eventually Brett contented himself with spending a few hours at the gym, where Angela and Justin also started their morning, until he’d done about all he could with the limited array of equipment. They all headed back to the suite, where Angela dashed into her room and employed some sort of quick-change magic trick, because in no time she’d popped back out clad in a swimsuit with a towel tossed over her shoulder and a book in hand.

                “If we’re on a cruise and going to an island, I’m at least coming back from this shit with something of a tan.”

                “We’re going to find you drunk and stranded on a pool float, aren’t we?” Justin asked.

                “Or being carried around on the shoulders of the crew, newly crowned as the queen of the cruise.” Angela dug around in her purse for a moment until she pulled out the cell phone DV had provided. Jokes aside, she knew to keep up with what was important. “But historically things tend to go more that first way. One of you be a lamb and make sure I’m not passed out and burning in an hour.”

                Before either could ask what pool area she would even be at, Angela was out the door, charging headlong into whatever mess she could find. Brett noticed that Justin had changed as well, though he didn’t seem to be sporting a swimsuit. “Not hitting the pool?”

                “Me? Maybe later, when the sun is a little lower in the sky. I burn and freckle more than tan. I’m going to spend my day taking classes, meeting other passengers, and just generally mingling. The more we learn about these people, the better we can fit in with them. Plus, if anyone else is stopping at United Avalon, I can see what sorts of reasons they’re using. Should make our cover all the more believable.”

                “Wow. And here I thought there would be nothing to do,” Brett admitted.

                “Nothing for you punchy types, sure. But the quiet moments are where we Subtlety folks earn our keep. You’re welcome to tag along if you like, although I’ve crafted a pretty aggressive schedule. First up is towel-folding class, then I’m getting an introductory course on the waltz, and after that I’ll be learning to cook the same paella that’s being served at lunch today… wait, did I sign up to help make lunch? Shit, that’s a good scam if it’s what they’re running.”

                “Tempting as it is to help cook for the cruise, I think I’ll pass.” Brett wasn’t entirely sure what he was going to do with his down time, but from only Justin’s morning it sounded like he had a lot planned, and it felt like the sort of endeavor where he’d work best alone. While boredom was an annoying foe to face, it wasn’t worth tanking Justin’s productivity to beat. “Besides, someone has to check on Angela in an hour. What if she does pass out and get burned?”

                A slight chuckle escaped Justin’s lips. “Well, then she’d sell the tourist story all the better. Not that I think that will actually happen, though. Despite how she likes to act, I doubt that woman has lost control of herself or a situation a single time since we’ve met. I’m sure she’ll be fine, but she might enjoy the company. Either way, try and have fun. Don’t just rest a few hours and go back to the gym.”

                That was, in fact, exactly the idea Brett had been entertaining. His eyes widened, and part of him wondered if Justin was hiding some method of telepathy they’d missed.

                “Spare me the shocked face. I pay attention to everything, you included. And while a morning workout is fine, it’s not exactly uncommon knowledge that Heroes love to train. Anybody watching for our kind is going to take careful note of people who spend the entire vacation working out.”

                “So I can do whatever I want, I just can’t be productive with my time,” Brett said.

                “Congratulations, you are now officially just like ninety percent of other recent college graduates, at least for two days.” Justin grabbed his own cell phone and pulled open the suite’s front door. “Try and have a little fun with the freedom. You could use it.” Then he was gone, the door closed behind, leaving Brett still lacking any idea of what to do with his day.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 65

                The next few days passed by largely without incident. Unseelie and a rotating list of teammates drove around with Iliana and Steven, continuing to hit dead-end after dead-end as they searched Port Valins for former United Avalon citizens. Coming up empty should have been a relief for her, except that with every failure she knew the diplomats were getting closer to finding another of their refugees, and perhaps creating a confrontation that would cost people their lives. Although she’d initially been on the fence about sending the interns to UA, now that they’d obtained permission and a guide, she wished they could just get on with it. She was sick of working blind.

                The interns themselves were being watched by Bayou, who was taking them along as he investigated lead after lead from their small list of potential killers. Most of the work was more stake-outs, watching to see if the person they were tailing suddenly dipped out of view at the same time new murders occurred, or if they headed over to the section of streets where the bodies disappeared. They had no luck, but Bayou was quick to remind them that this was to be expected. Their target knew someone had nearly caught them before, which could mean they suspected police or Heroes were in pursuit, so it made sense that they’d go underground for a while and let the heat die down. Patience, once again, was proving to be the hallmark of what defined a Subtlety Hero.

                After so much nothing, it was a surprise when they were heading back from more fruitless surveillance and they received a message from Dispatch, informing them to change out of costume at the base, grab their pre-packed bags, and take a cab, not teleport, to a specific harbor in exactly one and a half hours. None of the three needed more prompting than that to understand the moment had arrived: with almost no warning, just as promised, it was time to visit United Avalon.

                All three moved at a whiplash pace, grabbing their bags and bolting to the car waiting for them. Along the way, each wondered what they would find awaiting them. A fishing boat, with a carefully concealed compartment in the bottom where they would hide out. Maybe a yacht with high-tech tools to avoid detection. It could even be a simple speedboat, meant to look innocuous and uninteresting. Many theories were tossed about in the three brains, yet all found themselves swallowing an equal amount of surprise as they reached the specified harbor and left the car behind. This was very much not what they’d been expecting.

                “A cruise ship?” Brett sounded uncertain, which he was, checking the name of the harbor over and over again. It lined up with the one Dispatch had given them, but there still had to be some kind of mix-up. Why would she send them to a harbor specifically dedicated to loading and unloading cruise ships for a covert mission?

                “In plain sight. Bold. Risky, but bold.” Jerking a thumb toward the crowd of people waiting to board, Justin continued. “We’re supposed to be tourists, remember? And what’s the best way to sell that cover? Show up on a ship full of actual tourists. Blend in with the crowd. You don’t try to sneak in; you waltz through like you’ve got every right in the world to be there.”

                Angela was staring at the crowd Justin had pointed to, a look on her face that might have read as worry on someone else, but with her features came off more as annoyance. “Something doesn’t line up. Sure, people go to United Avalon sometimes, but not that many. Certainly not enough to fill a whole cruise ship at once for a single trip.”

                “Right you are.” The voice came from behind them, where the cab had formerly been, from a wholly unremarkable man wearing wide, unfashionable sunglasses. “They’d never fill this boat on UA tourists alone. This cruise does a lap around several tropical islands; allowing you to get off and stay at one if you so choose, then catch the boat on the way back. UA is the first stop on the tour, meaning anyone who gets off there will have approximately five days to check out the country before its time to come back. A very firm deadline, since the countries involved keep a careful eye on cruise passengers to make sure they return when they are supposed to. You can imagine the warning bells it might set off if a few people were to miss their ride home.”

                All three eyed the man cautiously. He seemed to know what was going on, but Dispatch had given them more than just the name of a harbor and a time. She’d also passed on a code phrase, to make sure they could identify their guide and vice versa. Angela stepped forward, as Brett and Justin knew she would, taking a confident step closer to the mystery man. “I hear the seas are rough out today.”

                “When danger is on the horizon, the seas are always rough.” He paused, looking almost sheepish for a brief moment. “I want it on record that I didn’t come up with that code phrase. Dispatch writes them all, I think it’s a creative outlet for her, so she gets a little carried away.”

                “Methinks the guide protests too much,” Justin muttered.

                Angela ignored him, sticking out her hand to greet the incognito Hero. “Thanks for taking us out of the country, sir. I’m Angela.”

                He shook her hand, but clipped off the opportunity for more introductions. “Call me DV, that’s fine in both normal and Hero mode, not that you should expect to see or do much of the latter. And I already know your names just fine, so skip telling them to me. Here’s what you all need to know: from the moment we make landfall until the boat comes back, we are under a ticking clock. This whole operation falls so barely over the line of legal that a stray wind could blow us across. That means we leave when it’s time and you all do exactly as I tell you. If anyone thinks they might have an issue with that, please don’t get on the ship. You’ll just be endangering yourself and your team. And me too, though I doubt you care as much about that.”

                There was a pause as DV waited to see if anyone would actually step aside. After several moments, he seemed to accept their answer. “Okay, so we’re all in I see. Not sure if that’s bravery or inexperience, guess we’ll find out in the clutch moments. There’s one more thing that you need to know before we board, however. My ability allows me to fade from people’s memory. When we’re apart, you might find your recollection of me slipping, especially if I have to crank up my power. I’ve got it momentarily turned off for this meeting, so you’ll all recall why I’m hard to remember later on, but from this point on I’m going to have to keep it working. We’ll communicate through text if there’s anything I have to tell that you need to remember, even if I’m standing next to you. I’ve got some special phones for the trip so we don’t need to worry about bad batteries or someone hacking our messages, but keep them on you at all times. Oh, and I’m in cabin four-twenty-six, come find me if you need anything on the boat.”

                “Aren’t we going straight to United Avalon?” Brett asked. “Doesn’t seem like we’ll be on the boat long enough to have something come up.”

                “Still a cruise-ship, kid. They aren’t exactly in a big hurry. Based on the predicted weather patterns and this vessel’s historical record, I estimate we’ve got at least two days to kill before we arrive. Two days when we all need to sell the cover of being normal, everyday tourists. Because I don’t know if UA keeps spies on these boats to look for people doing exactly what we’re trying to pull, but it’s what I would do, so we have to assume they’re at least as thorough.”

                Everyone could see Angela perk up visibly, her serious side slipping away as she realized it wouldn’t be needed quite yet. “So if I were to get wildly drunk and pass out on the pool deck, that would just be part of selling the cover, right?”

                “I don’t think you’d need to go quite that far, but it would be a touristy thing to do,” DV agreed.

                Angela clapped her hands and scooped up her bag. “Clear a path, shitbirds! Mama has a bar to drain.”

                They watched her saunter toward the crowd, only throwing an occasional glance over her shoulder to make sure the rest of her team was coming. Eventually, DV shrugged and started to follow.

                “She’s committed to the role, I’ll give her that much.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 64

                In the end, Angela didn’t have to play for a table. She scanned the room once, locked onto a group whose game was winding down, and made an approach. While there were other people hanging around the walls, clearly waiting for spots to open up, Angela clearly had no time for such passive approaches. She strolled right up to the people still playing and began to chat them up. True, it wasn’t the most sparkling conversation ever bantered, but it was more than enough to hold the attention of people a few pitchers into the night. By the time their game came to an end, she’d wormed her way in enough that handing over the cues seemed like a natural way for them to end their play-time.

                Brett couldn’t help noticing a few bitter stares from the people on the wall as he accepted the cues from Angela while she began to rack the balls. There wasn’t exactly a line system in place or anything so organized, however it was impossible to feel like she’d just leap-frogged over patrons waiting their turn. Looking up from the billiards, Angela noticed him glancing over to the wall of watchers.

                “Do you know why they are standing there, and we’re getting to play?” Angela asked.

                “Because you’re some kind of drunk-whisperer?”

                “No. Well, okay, yes, that’s actually true too,” Angela admitted. “But the main reason is even simpler than that: we’re here because we took action. Those people are waiting around for what they want to happen: a table to open up. We, on the other hand, took initiative and went after a table. Good things do happen in life, but there will never be as many as if you’d gone out and made them happen for yourself.” She took a brief break to finish arranging the balls. “Something my grandpa used to tell us a lot.”

                Under different circumstances, Brett might have been more dismissive of the token advice. That was slightly harder to do when he remember that her grandfather was Captain Starlight, however. It did explain a fair bit about Angela, if nothing else. They’d been working together for a few weeks now, and he wasn’t sure Angela had a passive bone in her body. She was always active, always doing, either going after something she wanted or laying the groundwork for it. Even the less fun stuff, like training, she threw herself into without hesitation. Brett imagined it would be an interesting, and exhausting, way to live, but it seemed to work for her.

                Justin arrived not long after with a round of drinks, and just as Angela predicted he proceeded to show off his pool skills by sinking three balls in rapid succession. This soon turned into good-natured bickering between the two about who had more experience handling a “cue and balls” until Brett thankfully realized that the drinks were pretty much gone, so he excused himself to grab another round just as Angela using the cue to pantomime an act that drew a lot of stares from other people.

                Since he didn’t have Justin’s knack for slipping through a crowd, Brett was forced to wait his turn at the bar. True, he could have muscled through, he was certainly bigger than nearly everyone else here, at least in terms of arms and shoulders, but he’d never been fully comfortable throwing his weight around like that. Fighting as a Hero was one thing, it was a job that required doing, and keeping innocent people meant stopping the guilty ones by whatever means were required. Shoving around normal folks felt more like just being a dick, so Brett contented himself with waiting patiently as customers were served in order.

                “Fucking bullshit, that’s what it is.”

                The voice coming from Brett’s left was louder than the ambient noise, and he turned without meaning to, as did several of the people around him. Two guys were standing near the bar, one in a suit and another dressed more normally, although the one in the suit had added the extra accessory of noticeable intoxication. He clearly believed his level of drunkenness to be inadequate, though, as the half-full beer in his hand was drained to a quarter in a single chug.

                “I didn’t do anything, I just went downtown to buy groceries, and because some fucking Super can’t be happy with having inhuman powers and tried to rob a store, my car gets caught up in the crossfire.” While slurring, the suited man was still coherent enough to keep loudly articulating his issues, which were probably the cause for this night’s drunkenness. “And now insurance says it’s going to be at least a week before I get a replacement. Fucking. Bullshit. The government should have to deal with all this crap, not me. Or make the fucking ‘Heroes’ do it, since they supposedly work for us.”

                Brett remembered hearing about a tussle outside a convenience store a few days back. Since the Wayward Wraiths were all dealing with guard duty and investigating the drug-dealer killings, someone else had been called on to deal with it. He couldn’t recall hearing anything about it being mishandled though, that would have stood out in his mind. It was just a normal engagement, a little collateral damage but no civilian injuries. As Heroes, those were pretty much the situations they hoped for, nothing lost that couldn’t be replaced.

                “Look man, this kind of thing happens. Just be glad you had insurance in the first place. My uncle once lost a trailer during a Super fight and he didn’t have a policy on it, so the thing was just gone.” The suited man’s friend, a more sober looking fellow in jeans, was trying to talk his buddy down, aware that they were drawing stares. He gave a half-hearted wave to the rest of the bar patrons. “Sorry, my friend didn’t get the news he was hoping for from the insurance company today.”

                “Don’t apologize for me.” Another chug, and now the beer glass was completely empty. “I’m right to be pissed. Why are we just taking this? Why do we let ourselves live in a world where shit can go totally sideways because one person feels like it? It’s the Supers who should be sorry, for fucking this all up, for breaking the-”

                A heavy thud cut off the drunken rant as a burly bartender slapped a clipboard with a check attached onto the counter in front of the pair. “You’re cut off. Both of you. Now pay and leave. You want to stir that kind of shit up, do it elsewhere. I’m not having my bar wrecked because you can’t keep your mouth shut.”

                Although Brett certainly agreed that the guy needed to be cut off, the reasoning for it seemed a touch odd. Did the bartender really think some Super in the crowd would make a giant scene because a drunk said mean things? Looking around the room, Brett realized that not only was that exactly what the bartender thought, but he wasn’t alone. People had drawn in on themselves and were glancing about constantly. He even caught whispers of things like “never know where one is” and “some look human.” It was strange; the angry drinker hadn’t really bothered Brett, he was just a drunk having a bad day and taking it out on an easy target. The fear, on the other hand, unsettled him. These people were genuinely scared that saying a few cross words about Supers was going to get them all hurt, if not worse. As a Hero, Brett worked hard to make people feel safe in the world, to reassure them that if something did go wrong, there would be Supers they could count on to come save the day. Heroes were supposed to reassure humans that they didn’t have to be afraid.

                Clearly, the message wasn’t getting through as well as he’d hoped.

                When the duo left, the bartender went back to business, quickly working through orders until Brett was finally up. As he waited for the next round to be crafted, he noticed that even though the pair had left, the tension hadn’t fully dissipated. Some were still waiting for the other shoe to drop, for a Super to take umbrage at the remarks and start tearing things up. It seemed unlikely, since if it was going to happen it would have already, but Brett kept an eye out too, just in case.

                It was beyond his power to change how the world saw Supers. However, it was still his duty to protect these humans, a duty that he took quite seriously. If any intoxicated Super started looking for trouble in his presence, they would find more than they bargained for. That was why Heroes existed, to remind the other Supers of the world that no matter how strong they might be, there were still consequences for their actions.

                But for tonight, Brett tried to remind himself that he was off-duty. He accepted his drinks, tipped the bartender, and headed back into the pool area. After that scene, watching Angela and Justin make lewd comments almost seemed like a welcome change of pace.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 63

                While he’d never been a big fan of partying or drinking, as one might imagine from a person competing in a physically demanding program, Brett had still spent four years trying to sell the cover of a normal college student, so he’d been to more than a few bars in his time. From the outside, “Take a Cue” seemed like many of the ones he’d spent time in during college, setting his nerves at ease. Sure, the music from one side of the building was louder, which seemed odd, but through the windows he could see people milling around pool tables with drinks in hand, shooting the shit along with the billiards. It shouldn’t have been all that surprising, this was supposed to be a normal night off for bonding, but somehow he’d built it up in his head that Justin and Angela would pick some weird place with swings on the ceilings or people in full costumes.

                “I have to say, looks like a fun choice,” Brett admitted. “From the noise, I’m guessing there’s a dance floor on the other side of the pool hall?”

                “Got it in one shot.” Angela slapped him on the back in what he took to be a gesture of congratulations. “Justin wanted somewhere that seedy types might hang out in case there was any underworld gossip to eavesdrop on, but that risked us getting into a fight if someone decided we looked like easy pickings, so instead we chose a spot that was respectable with slight seedy undertones. I wanted to dance, he wanted something to amuse himself with, so this was a good option, and we were on the same page about wanting a gay bar from the start. It was this or a joint that’s part EDM club and part arcade, but you get more bang for your buck on a game of pool. Also, I’m not going to be able to get anywhere near fucked-up enough to like EDM tonight.”

                There was a lot to unpack in her explanation, not the least of which was that Justin was the one who had wanted to take them somewhere more dangerous and Angela had apparently been the voice of reason. That fact alone made Brett feel the strong urge to have a drink in his hand. But there was one matter that seemed important to clarify first, especially since the point of tonight was to get to know each other better.

                “Why a gay bar? I thought you had a boyfriend.”

                “They play better music and I don’t have to deal with scummy dudes trying to hit on me the whole time,” Angela explained.

                Justin gave an eye-roll that was practice to perfection. “Glad to see your ego is just as strong in normal situations. And while I can tell you were trying to be polite about how you asked, I voted for this place because I actually am gay. If you’re keeping track on the bingo card, that’s gay, Jewish, and short enough to seem like an easy target. High school was just a barrel of fun.”

                He put a hand on each of their necks and started leading them forward, toward the front where a guy most would have considered burly, if they didn’t have HCP standards, was checking the I.D. of every would-be patron. “That’s all in the past though, let’s put an eye toward the future of our little team.  How about we start with something simple: what does everyone like to drink? I’ll make a run to the bar for our first round while you two grab us a table.”

                “Let’s do a vodka and soda to start the night,” Angela said. “And why am I on table duty?”

                “Because you’ll browbeat, flirt, or threaten as needed until you’ve gotten us one.” There wasn’t so much as a flicker of a pause between the question and the answer, as though Justin had been expecting and ready for it the whole time.

                “Well, you hit that right on the nose.” Angela jerked a thumb over at Brett. “He’s good backup too. Looks tough enough that I can make my moves without anything actually getting physical. Just don’t talk, Brett, and we’ll be playing in no time.”

                “Thank… you?” Brett genuinely had lost track of whether or not she’d paid him a compliment or an insult, and he didn’t feel especially motivated to puzzle it out. “And a beer is fine for me, Justin. Whatever they have that’s on draft and dark.”

                The talk had to pause as they reached the bouncer, who took a look at each driver’s license handed to him and examined it like CSI going over a crime scene. Finally he handed all three back and motioned for them to go inside the bar.

                It was an interesting set-up: the building was split into three distinct spaces, the smallest of which was the bar itself. This served as little more than a filling station, where people could freshen their drinks or go around a corner to the bathrooms. On the right were a large number of pool tables with cues lining the walls, and when briefly opened the doors on the left revealed a number of bodies packed into a dance floor with flashing lights. The crowd wasn’t huge yet, but it was also still early in the evening. While team building was all well and good, they did have work to do in the morning. Couldn’t risk being too tired or having a hangover.

                “So a vodka with soda and a dark beer on draft. For future reference, my drink of choice is a screwdriver. Keep that in mind when it’s time for the next round.” With that, Justin peeled off; making his way through the crush of people already trying to get served. Despite his smaller stature, or perhaps because of it, he slid easily through the crowd, arriving at the bar in moments.

                Angela grabbed Brett by the shoulder, dragging him toward the pool hall. “Come on, I see a few games on the verge of wrapping up. If we slide in quick, we might be able to jump on their table when they peel off. Or play them for control, if this place runs on pride and ego like most pool joints.”

                “I hope you’re great at pool if that’s your plan, because I’ve barely played ten games through the course of college,” Brett said.

                “I’m decent, sometimes good when I’m in the zone, but we’ve got an advantage those people don’t.” Angela gave Brett an exaggerated wink that he dearly hoped was not her version of attempting to be subtle. “See, we haven’t been drinking yet. One of these tables is already deep into the sauce, so if it comes to a challenge we just have to find them and play smart. Worst case scenario, we stake a claim and hold out until Justin gets back. I’ve got a strong hunch that he wouldn’t have signed off on a place like this unless it gave him room to impress. Let’s start with diplomacy first, though.”

                Now that was something he hadn’t expected to hear come out of Angela’s mouth. She wasn’t exactly reckless in the field, in fact she always seemed to be aware of the situation and in control of her strategy, but diplomacy didn’t spring to mind as her first strategy. Although he hadn’t said anything at the base, Brett hadn’t been entirely sure that this was really the best way to spend their evening. They were barely in the door and he was learning more about his teammates though, just the shift in their surroundings had given them a chance to show different parts of themselves. Maybe it was good that they were getting this time before the trip.

                There were sure to be enough surprises waiting for them in United Avalon, the last thing they needed were any from their own team.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 62

                There was no good time to leave behind people she didn’t trust, but a formal dinner was as decent a chance as she was going to get. After spending the day driving around chasing flimsy leads that turned into dead ends, Iliana and Steven had retired back to the hotel they owned to engage in more traditional diplomatic duties. Specifically, they were having a nice meal with representatives of multiple agencies, talking over possible alliances with United Avalon. Unseelie hated to leave those two unwatched, however between all the state and DVA security, not to mention Hammerspace and Bloodfyre, it seemed highly unlikely that anything would happen over the course of the meal. And she had to make use of this time, because much as she didn’t want to turn her back on the diplomats, the idea of letting her interns go off with someone Unseelie had never met was entirely unacceptable.

                She slipped away between the soup and salad course, intending to be back by the end of entrees, maybe dessert at the latest. Unseelie followed Dispatch’s directions out of the hotel, down a few back alleys and into a building that could have passed for abandoned if one didn’t catch the telltale signs of squatters. Creeping along the stairs that barely held her weight, Unseelie finally arrived at the designated meeting spot and pushed the door open.

                “Slowly, if you don’t mind. I have trust issues.”

                The voice came from the other side, and Unseelie obliged the request, both because she needed this man’s help and due to the fact that it was perfectly reasonable. Gradually moving the door, she stepped through carefully. In the shadow of a hallway was a figure that she could just make out as male, although it might have been harder without the voice to tip her off.

                “If you’d be so kind, I’d like to see a demonstration of your power. Doesn’t need to be fancy, just proof that you aren’t an illusion. Carve a circle into the floor.”

                That was a little more paranoid than the slow door opening, but again he had a point, so she obliged. Pulling out a diamond from one of the pockets on her costume, Unseelie formed it into a dagger, squatted down, and gouged a near-perfect circle into the worn wood of the floor.

                “Satisfied?”

                “There’s still the possibility that you’re a mimic or some other Super I haven’t heard of yet, but since Dispatch routed you here it seems unlikely. I guess that will do for now.” The man emerged from the shadows, sporting a ski-mask rather than anything Hero-issued.

                “That’s an interesting fashion choice.”

                He gave a shrug that sent ripples down the worn trenchcoat obscuring most of his frame. “In my day-to-day work, I don’t wear a mask. I bought this one special just for our meeting. Since I have to let you remember it, I’d rather you not be able to pick me out from a crowd.”

                “Little time as I’ve got, I think I’m going to have to ask for you to explain a statement that cryptic.”

                His eyes blinked quickly, and a short smile poked out from under the mask. “Glad to hear Dispatch is getting better about not giving too much away. To make it short and simple, my power makes people forget about me. How fast it happens depends on how much effort I put into it, but as a rule I usually have the effect working in some capacity at all times. These sorts of moments are a rare exception where I turn it all the way off, hence the precautions. Word was that you wanted to get people in and out of a place leaving as little trace as possible, so Dispatch tapped me to do the favor.”

                A Hero that no one could remember… Unseelie could instantly see the usefulness of such a power, and she imagined a man who lived with it would come up with countless more creative ways to wield such a gift. It also seemed problematic, at least potentially so, since someone who couldn’t be remembered would also be hard to hold accountable to his actions. That was a worry for Dispatch and the government to deal with though, Unseelie had her own concerns.

                “What do I call you?”

                “DV will do just fine. Run the name by Dispatch when this is over if you need to, she’s one of the few people constantly aware of me and what I do. And you’re Unseelie, the Hero sending out interns on a fact-finding mission that is just barely on the side of being allowed. I assume you wanted this meeting to vet or threaten me, to make sure I take proper care of your new recruits.”

                “That’s… pretty accurate,” Unseelie admitted.

                Another coat-ruffling shrug. “You tend to stick to your profile. Relax, this isn’t my first time doing work that’s barely legal. Sometimes I even get the jobs that fall on the other side of the line. I know I come off a little creepy, but I’m still a Hero. With my power, I could be living in luxury without anyone even knowing I’d committed a crime, and yet here I am in this shithole talking to you. I do this work because I believe in it, and I’m not going to let anything happen to a bunch of rookies.”

                It was exactly what she’d been hoping to hear, which made the statement problematic. “You’ve clearly done your research on me, so how do I know you didn’t craft that speech specifically to put me at ease? It felt a bit too on-the-nose.”

                The smile poking through the mask grew a touch wider. “You’re smarter than your file lets on, and it doesn’t exactly paint you as a dumb brute. To answer the question: you don’t know that I’m not faking my way through all of this. I’m a Subtlety Hero, and one of the better hidden ones at that. But you’re the one who needs the favor, not me. You can either be okay with this or send someone else, someone who might not be as good at their job, in my place. If you need to trust someone though, trust Dispatch. She’s the one who set this meeting up. Do you really think she would point you to a Hero she didn’t believe could get the job done?”

                 He had her there. If she was going to start doubting Dispatch, Unseelie might as well hang up the mask tonight. Between assignments, information, and basic communication, all Heroes depended on Dispatch nearly as much as their own powers. No one was better informed about the Hero world or the people in it. If Dispatch thought DV was the right man for the job, then he almost certainly was.

                “When can you be ready to go?” Unseelie asked.

                “A couple of days, at the most. I’ve got my own case to finish up before I take off on the ‘vacation’ you’ve got planned. Tell your interns to keep their bags packed though. I don’t have much spare time, so when I arrive to start things rolling I expect them to be ready.”

                “My interns will be waiting,” Unseelie shot back. “They’re a competent set who just need a little guidance. I’ve got a lot of hope for all three of them, so I expect to get them all back in relatively unharmed condition.”

                A soft chuckle escaped DV’s lips as he stepped back into the shadow. “I’ll do my best, but that’s more up to United Avalon than me.”

 

While I try not to plug things too much on these posts, since folks have been asking I'm going to put up a link to the anthology where DV first appeared. It's not a required read for this book, but if you'd like to know more about him you can see him in action here: https://www.amazon.com/Good-Fight-Scott-Bachmann-ebook/dp/B00KTD4UVI

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 61

                After a full day of digging through files, cross-referencing the few flimsy leads he found, and having most of them chucked out, Brett was resolved to never complain about another gym session for the rest of his life. He would have gladly traded the hours spent rifling around in papers for sweat and strain, because at least with the latter he’d have felt like he accomplished something once the work was done. When Bayou finally declared that they’d been through everything for the day, he had a slender stack of pages in front of him, the few leads that were still viable but probably wouldn’t, in Bayou’s own words, amount to much of anything. Failure seemed to be something that Subtlety Heroes took in stride, and the more time Brett spent around them the better he understood why.

                “So, what’s next for the night?” Brett asked.

                “Dinner is coming up soon, but with Unseelie and other staff members rotating in and out of guard duty it might not be the usual affair. We’re midway through an investigation, and part of our team is committed to diplomat duty, so I don’t see us biting off anything new.” Bayou pulled out his phone and punched a few buttons until he saw what he wanted. “Nothing major on the schedule either. I think you three might just have something of a night off. If you’re already packed and ready to head off to UA at a moment’s notice, then I don’t see why you shouldn’t get to use your downtime. Just remember to keep the comms in your ears at all time. They’re inconspicuous by design so nobody will notice, but if a crime comes up and we need you every minute will matter. Given that the team is already assigned to a diplomat bodyguard job though, we’ll be low on the list for any incidents. Go out and have some fun.”

                Justin cleared his throat to get Bayou’s attention. “Actually, if you’re going to be vetting those files like I suspect, perhaps it might be useful for me to stay at your side and watch.”

                “You already know how to do this kind of work,” Bayou replied. “And team-building is important. Since you three are about to spend a lot of time around each other, a night of fun and getting to better know one another can’t hurt. Stay here and play board games or go turn Angela loose on the local bar scene, I don’t care as long as you three do it together.”

                “I’m a little surprised my reputation precedes me so effectively.” Angela didn’t sound bothered by the comment, closer to proud if anything.

                In reply, Justin and Bayou both pointed to the older Hero’s torso and said in unison: “Subtlety.”

                “Yeah yeah, I get it. Let a lady have a sense of mystery about herself though, allow me to ease these two into the shitshow.”

                “That feels like one of the most compelling arguments for staying in and playing board games I could have imagined,” Brett said.

                Angela laughed, a sound that should have been reassuring yet very much wasn’t. “If that’s what you really want, but I should warn you I only play those games for high stakes. My versions involve lots of shots, daggers, and a mandatory first aid kit on hand at all times. Or a healing Super, if you want to really push things.”

                “On the other hand, there is something to be said for the safety of a public venue,” Justin chimed in. “I bet there are some relatively close bars we could easily get to. Have a few beers, talk about life, return here safe and unharmed.”

                With a roll of her eyes that was downright ostentatious, Angela nodded agreement. “I suppose if you want to keep it safe and simple, that’s an option. I’m not going to fight you on it, I’ve stacked up a few cute outfits that I haven’t had the chance to wear because we’re in here all the time. Just make sure you two put on something decent, otherwise we’re going to look odd if you’re both slumming it and I am shining like a star.”

                “Huh.” Brett didn’t entirely mean for the grunt of surprise to slip out, it came unbidden, but once it broke through there was no shoving it back into his mouth. Regardless of how much he might have liked to.

                “Got something to say about that?” Angela asked.

                “Not especially. Sorry, I guess I was a little surprised. We’ve been working together for weeks now, and you never struck me as someone who cares about their outfit.”

                “Just because I kick a lot of ass in my armor doesn’t mean I don’t know how to work a pair of heels. It’s called ‘work hard, play hard’ and I suggest you learn about it sooner than later.” Angela hopped out of her chair, letting it spin slowly as she walked away. “But you’ve just proven Bayou’s point for him. We don’t know each other very well outside of our narrowly defined roles as interns. When we go to UA we need to be seamless. Coordinated, calculating, and able to communicate with a glance. Part of that means knowing as much as we can about what everyone’s strengths are, in and out of costume. You boys have an hour to prep, then we’re heading out. I’ve already got a few bars in mind.”

                 To her surprise, Justin rose from his seat as well, meeting her eyes at near-equal level if one discounted the height difference. “Who says you get to be in charge of the outing? Maybe I’ve been looking forward to hitting the town too.”

                Halting in her tracks, Angela looked him up and down for several seconds. “Yeah, we’re definitely overdue for this kind of activity. Fine, you want to help, I’m good with that. Say we meet ten minutes early, both bring our top picks for where to go, and hammer it out from there? It goes without saying that if we’ve got any overlap, we’ll just pick one of those.”

                “Sounds fair,” Justin agreed.

                As the discussion went down, Brett sat by, mildly amused. He could tell that more was going on than just debating what bar they’d go spend a few hours at, but for the life of him couldn’t quite manage to care about all of the intricacies. It was obvious that they were really talking about authority and leadership, neither of which concerned him greatly. As a Super who filled a strongman role, Brett had never had aspirations of leading a team. He was happy to let the more tactically minded Supers bicker over that burden, preferring to focus on being the best he could at his particular role. Although, on this one occasion, he wondered if perhaps that nature would come back to bite him.

                Because wild and reckless as Angela could seem, there was something glinting in Justin’s eyes that made Brett wary of what sort of establishment he’d pick as well.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 60

                The food was good. Surprisingly good, in fact. For a mid-income neighborhood and a restaurant where people wore shorts and sandals, Unseelie had a baseline expectation of quality that the food they received easily topped. If not for the conversation with Morris, she might have found it confusing as to why someone with this talent was working in a place below their station. But given his history, it made sense. Morris just wanted to work, and if he was lying about being an ex-con then the nicer the places he applied to, the higher the chances of getting caught. So he was slumming it, working below what his skill level warranted to try and blend in. Sadly, he’d need to start lowering the quality if he wanted to stay unnoticed. Food this good was going to get attention sooner or later.

                “Not that I’m complaining, but should I save room for dinner in case we’re going to another restaurant hunting for your Pallab guy?” Panic was working her way through a section of seabass with gusto that clearly said she wasn’t going to leave stomach space either way, but it was still polite to ask.

                “Doubtful. There are many restaurants in Port Valins, and Pallab could be at any of them, or at some other business entirely. This was our best lead on finding him. I can see why people feel the dishes leave them feeling overall well, they are supremely balanced and utilize many healthy ingredients, but it is a far cry from the effects that Pallab could conjure. Still, this is quite good. Perhaps we will come back here on another day.”

                Unseelie set her fork down. This was an odd situation, and a tenuous one at that, but she wasn’t gaining anything by staying sullenly silent. If she was going to be at the diplomats’ sides for the foreseen future, better to establish a dialogue. Through casual conversation, they might let something slip. It was highly unlikely, yet it still had a better chance of happening if she actually got them talking.

                “Why are we eating here? I agree that the food is wonderful, however that doesn’t address the question of why you had the chef cook for us in the first place. Are there no other leads to run down?”

                “Fewer than I would like, but some still remain,” Iliana said. “As to why we ate here, it was the best way to keep Morris from having trouble. If Heroes suddenly showed up, demanded to talk with him, and then left, it would raise many questions. The sort of questions a man in his position likely can’t afford to have people asking. On the other hand, if Heroes show up, demand to speak to him, and then dine at his establishment, it gives the appearance that you only wanted a meal and perhaps had some dietary or security issues to talk with him about beforehand.”

                Unseelie nodded, albeit begrudgingly. “I understood that part. I’m just not sure why it is you care what some ex-con chef had to deal with.”

                “Whatever you may think of us, it is not our intention to make innocent people needlessly suffer.” Iliana paused to take a sip of wine. Only she and Steven were drinking, yet they’d still managed to nearly kill a bottle on their own without showing any ill-effects. “We are merely here to do a job. While there’s little we won’t do to accomplish it, that doesn’t mean we are compelled to be careless or cruel. I’d expect you to understand the sentiment quite well, Unseelie. It’s not unlike the way Heroes approach a mission.”

                “Do you have Heroes in United Avalon?” Panic had paused from her seabass to ask the question, a seemingly innocuous look on her face. “I know you might not call them that or anything, but I guess I was wondering if you have Supers trained specifically to deal with Super threats. Pretty much every country has formed some kind of system for it, they’ve had to.”

                To everyone’s surprise, it was Steven who answered her question. “United Avalon has a police force like any other nation, but we don’t split the Blessed from the mundane as you do. Those with powers and those without are put on the same force, and are assigned to tasks appropriate to their skills. The mundane handle standard crime, while those with gifts also work against normal criminals as well as ones that abuse their powers.”

                “So not that far off from what we do, except that you centralized the systems rather than splitting them. Sort of like what Canada managed with their Ultra-Mountie program,” Panic noted. “Does that work well for you? When Supers join police forces here, there can be some resentment issues.”

                “Our system is new, of course, and the long-term sustainability has yet to be seen, but I feel confident we will make it work in time,” Iliana told her. “Perhaps you have resentment because you humor the humans’ thoughts of equality. Your culture likes to pretend that our kind and theirs are on the same footing, as though the blessings we have don’t inherently make us more powerful. Coddling humans is dangerous; it only leads them to anger when they are forced to face the truth. United Avalon does not subjugate our humans, but neither do we pretend they are as capable or useful as those with gifts. Our humans know their place in the world, and they are happier for it.”

                “There are plenty of humans capable of great things,” Unseelie countered. “Any given one of them could be smarter than any given one of us, depending on the powers we have. Or faster, or stronger, or more decent. Having a power doesn’t make us better than all of them at everything.”

                To her surprise, Iliana nodded in agreement. “Quite right. It does, however, keep them from ever being the best. The smartest of humans will never best the smartest of the Blessed, with their minds enhanced beyond natural limitations. Nor will the strongest human compare to the strongest of our kind, and so on. There is a ceiling for them, and they know it. All the hard work, all the effort, none of it can overcome what we were born with. They will never be the best at anything, and that makes the best of them all the more dangerous. They cannot surpass us, so they will hate us instead.”

                “It sounds as though you don’t care much for humans,” Panic said.

                “On a personal basis, I try to judge them case-by-case. But as a species, when they move as a group, I do not trust them. Humans know, instinctually if not consciously, what our arrival signifies. They are no longer at the top of the food chain. They have become secondary in their own world, and they will not accept such an indignity with ease.” For a fleeting moment, something like anger darted across Iliana’s face. It was well-controlled, yet Unseelie saw it all the same. Then it passed, and she continued.

                “I have seen what happens when humans struggle against the changing of the natural order. I have witnessed the suffering and destruction they leave in their wake. No, I do not trust humans, and you would be wise not to either. Sooner or later, the veneer of peace you’ve fashioned will fall away, and they’ll show you what they’re really made of.”

Blades & Barrier: Chapter 59

                It had been very tempting to have Bloodfyre tag along again on the next outing with the diplomats. His power was versatile, dangerous, and could turn a fight on a dime when applied correctly. In terms of raw destructive power, he was the best on the team. However, much as she might have liked the reassurance of having him near, Basil’s unexpected suicide had left Unseelie wondering if destruction was really the right tool for the job. True, those magnetic abilities could have easily been turned against the Heroes or diplomats, yet they hadn’t been. She needed to be as prepared as possible for more Supers willing to end themselves rather than deal with Steven or Iliana. And that meant she needed someone who could neutralize their enemies, whether the attacks were directed outward or inward.

                Ultimately, Panic was the best fit for the job until they knew more. It would take a tremendous amount of focus for anyone to manage an attack against her power, and hopefully that would buy Unseelie enough time to neutralize a confrontation peacefully. It was a risk, bringing less raw muscle along, but one that needed to be taken.

                The armored limo was largely quiet as they moved through the streets of Port Valins. Barely a word had passed between Iliana and Unseelie since the fight at Basil’s garage, and Steven had already been the quiet type. Panic was the only exception since she spent large chunks of time on the phone, coordinating events and knocking out her normal duties in the downtime. Even that was put away as the limo began to slow, pulling up outside a restaurant in a neighborhood that was a step up from the day prior, yet far from the most decadent area in Port Valins.

                Panic started to reach for the door knob, but Unseelie touched her arm carefully before turning to Iliana. “We had a deal. What are the four of us about to walk into?”

                “A longshot, truthfully.” To her credit, Iliana didn’t bluster or try to walk back their agreement. She met Unseelie’s gaze without hesitation. “Basil was our likeliest target; this is more of what we’ll be seeing. According to reports, this restaurant was recently taken over by a virtually unknown chef, and has since experienced a rapid rise in popularity. People say that not only is the food good, but that they also feel generally better after eating it. We are looking for a Super named Pallab, who had the ability to infuse food with all manner of different properties. Depending on his intent, he could prepare a dish that would never give off a whiff of poison yet kill an elephant in a single bite, or whip together a feast that made the diner alert, strong, and feeling full for days. It is our theory that he is cooking here under a false name, allowing only the barest fraction of his ability to surface.”

                “A Super cook. That’s a new one by me,” Panic admitted.

                “There have been many Supers who could change the properties of objects, although it is a creative use of a power.” Unseelie released her hand from Panic’s arm, who finally shoved the door open. “So we shouldn’t expect an incident like yesterday then?”

                Iliana gave a light, oddly proper, shrug. “I can’t tell you what to expect. I certainly didn’t see things with Basil going that way. Pallab is a wily man who has found many ways to use his gift in the past. I would advise you not to underestimate him, if conflict arises.”

                That was the end of the discussion, as Iliana and Steven followed Panic out, with Unseelie taking up the rear. They didn’t bother canvasing the block this time, both because this area was far less likely to see some unlucky crook approach a pair of Heroes and for the far more simple reason that Unseelie didn’t care as much about the diplomats’ safety. She was here as a guard just like she’d promised; only she was a guard for the city itself. So long as Port Valins and its people remained unharmed, Unseelie was at best ambivalent toward Iliana and Steven, even if their harm would cause problems for her. It might be worth the heat just to see them off of her streets.

                As they entered, there were some gasps from the diners. Seeing Heroes wasn’t quite and everyday thing, and they often caused a commotion wherever they went. It was one of the many reasons having masks and costumes was so important, that was what allowed them to slip away from such constant attention and have a few moments of life for themselves. Panic waved to the crowd, working them in her usual effortless way, while Unseelie kept to the task at hand. Her image was one of being all-business anyway, so no one was shocked that she ignored the stares and whispers.

                “We’d like to speak with the chef.” Unseelie didn’t waste time, striding right up to the nearest host and getting down to business. He stared at her, working through the shock for several seconds before finally pulling himself together enough to muster a reply.

                “Is there some sort of problem?”

                “I hope not, I really do, but we won’t know until we’ve talked to him.” Unseelie could feel the eyes on her, wondering what had brought a Hero out to this place. So many people here, so many civilians that could be caught in the cross-fire if there was an issue. “If you have a private area, we can wait there.”

                The host managed a half-nod, leading Unseelie and the rest of her party through the restaurant to a room clearly intended for large groups. The four of them took seats while the host left, waiting patiently as the minutes ticked by. Finally, a slender man in a white coat popped his head through, looking nervously between the Heroes and the diplomats.

                “Wow. Unseelie and Panic. They, uh, they really went all out, didn’t they.” He glanced over at Iliana and Steven again, eyebrows crinkling together. “I saw you both on TV the other day too. Why are diplomats here for my arrest?”

                “Arrest?” It was Unseelie’s turn to be confused.

                “Yeah. I won’t fight, I’m not stupid. I just wanted to make something of myself, you know? All those years lost, and then I kept trying to get honest work, but nobody wanted an ex-con, so I stopped admitting to being one. I knew someone might find out, I tried to keep a low profile. Just not low enough I guess.” He started to hold out his hands, then paused. “Can we… can we do this without the cuffs? I’d like to leave with some dignity in front of my staff.”

                Iliana rose from her chair, with Steven following soon after. “What is your name, chef?”

                “Morris Pittman, ma’am. Didn’t you already know that?”

                “We did not.” Iliana walked over and patted him on the shoulder. “Morris, we came here looking for a man, and you are not him. Unseelie, do you have any warrants or cause to bring in Chef Pittman?”

                “Not a one,” Unseelie replied.

                “Then it seems this was merely a case of mistaken identity. We apologize for interrupting your lunch service. I wouldn’t want anyone to think we came for an untoward reason, so perhaps you would do us the kindness of allowing us to order. Stopping in for a meal is a perfectly logical reason that the four of us would visit, after all. And please, show us the best food you can make, we’ve got more than enough to cover the bill.”

                Morris looked downright confused, but as reality finally set in that he wasn’t in trouble his cheeks went red and he began to nod vigorously. “Yes ma’am, of course. It would be a pleasure to cook for diplomats and Heroes! I’ll oversee the creation of your dishes myself.”

                He was out the room like a shot, and moments later a waiter came in to pour them all glasses of cold water. Iliana retook her seat next to Steven and then looked to Unseelie. “I hope you’ll forgive my committing us to lunch. I’m aware there is no love lost here, but we do all need to eat.”

                “It’s fine,” Unseelie said. She was still trying to figure out what kind of game Iliana was playing this time, but for now things had ended without bloodshed. So long as they kept going that way, she would play along. But she wouldn’t let her guard down. Being caught unprepared once had been more than enough for this mission.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 58

                “Welcome to another peek at the sexy, glamorous world of Subtlety!” Justin set the load of files and pages in his arms down directly onto the conference table, with Bayou hauling in another stack just behind him. “If you thought staking out was fun, you’re both going to crap your pants in excitement once you get a taste of today’s project: research.”

                Brett stared at the growing mound of papers, suddenly having flashbacks to senior year when all of his tests and projects were coming due. “Okay, I know this is probably a dumb question, but I’m going to want an answer eventually so I might as well get it out of the way. Why are we digging through a bunch of pages instead of going back to the neighborhood where the killer is? Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep hunting for them?”

                “We are hunting for them, in a way,” Bayou explained. “As far as in person searching goes, the odds of us finding our murderer are slim right now. Remember, we scared them away from the scene yesterday, so they know someone is on the trail. Anyone with enough sense to stay unnoticed for this long will go underground for a bit, wait until the heat dies down. But even if that were not the case, we’d still be doing this. Justin, would you care to tell Brett why that is?”

                There was no hesitation; Justin took the metaphorical baton as soon as it left Bayou’s hands. “To put in a nutshell: controlled engagement. Let’s say we did go back to the coffee shop and keep hunting for our target. We might find them on the street again, and when we tried to come after them there would be no shortage of civilians to use as cover or shielding. Even if we tried to trail them back to their hideout, they might spot us and then we’re in the same position. Basically, by going at it that way we’re letting someone else set the terms of the encounter. Now that’s unavoidable in a lot of Hero work, obviously when we react to stop a crime we’re engaging on the criminal’s terms. Whenever it’s possible though, we prefer to dictate the terms of the engagement. If we can figure out who our killer is, then we can get to them when they aren’t expecting it, minimizing the chances of a fight at all.”

                That certainly did seem like a more ideal way to catch a killer, Brett could see the appeal. He just didn’t quite grasp how they were supposed to arrive at that point. “Makes sense, but what can we research to figure that out? Are we looking for some sort of pattern to triangulate the killer’s base?”

                Justin chuckled. “I wish, that would probably be easier, but there’s no way we have the data to pull it off. No, what we’re doing here is using what little we know to find some likely culprits. After that, we start checking them out to see if any of them are our Super. If we find the target, great, if not, well I told you before: Subtlety involves a lot of dead ends.”

                “Seeing as we don’t even know if the killer is a boy or girl, I’m not sure how much we’ve got to go on,” Brett said.

                “We have more than you think.” Bayou began ticking off fingers on his hands as he spoke. “We know the general area that our killer works in, we know the type of person they target, we know a rough estimate of how long it’s been going on for, and we know the method of murder they use. The killer only goes after drug dealers, and only ones within a certain neighborhood. Justin, what does that point to?”

                “Revenge or retribution. The most likely scenario is that our killer lost someone to drugs, be it through an overdose or gang activities centered around dealing. Maybe they’re offing drug dealers to keep the neighborhood safe, maybe they’re hoping to get the one that was responsible and don’t care how many they mow through in the process.”

                “Couldn’t it just be some new Super in town who didn’t want to go through the HCP to fight crime?” Angela suggested. “Those do pop up from time to time.”

                “True, and it’s certainly possible,” Bayou said. “However we’ll see that soon enough. If the killer changes locations, then it’s more likely to be a vigilante. If they keep working in that same neighborhood, then it means they have a personal investment in those streets. Since we can’t research the former very easily, that means our best bet is to focus on the latter. Thus, today’s assignment.”

                Justin was already making the rounds, handing out stacks of pages to each person. “These are coroner’s reports on every gang-related murder and drug-overdose for the past year. Our job is to look into every person’s friends and family, seeing if they have anyone who might possess the necessary skills to take this kind of revenge. Pay special attention to ones that live near the hunting neighborhood or moved there recently. They might not be living openly as a Super, so don’t count on finding that part, although of course if they do have powers on record that makes them more likely candidates. If you’re unsure, put them in the potential pile. We’re going to whittle it down anyway, better we be too thorough than let something slip through the cracks.”

                “A year?” Brett was almost certain they’d said this issue had been limited to the last few months. “That feels like overkill. I trust you have a reason for going back that far, just trying to understand what it is.”

                “Our Super is careful,” Angela told him. “Really careful. Nobody pulls off a scheme like this without loads of planning. They may not have jumped right into drug-dealer murder when the person they loved died. There was probably some time devoted to figuring out how they were going to pull it off.”

                “Precisely.” Justin set the last stack down in front of himself. It didn’t escape anyone’s notice that he’d taken on what was obviously the largest of the piles. “Look, I won’t lie; the odds of us finding our crook this way aren’t great. Subtlety is often a game of taking a lot of failures in stride until you hit on the one success. But when those successes come, they can make a huge difference. Plus, what better way to kill time until we get mysteriously whisked out of the country?”

                Angela tapped her chin a few times before answering. “I mean, a shopping day wouldn’t be the worst idea. I could use some new swimsuits if we’re heading to a tropical nation.”

                “We’re going there to investigate,” Brett reminded her.

                “With the cover that we’re tourists,” Angela countered. “So things like new swimsuits would help sell the image. But hey, digging through old reports sounds fun too.”

                She rolled her eyes at the end, even as she took her own stack and began looking through it. Since there was little else to do, Brett followed her lead and started to read as well. Maybe he’d be lucky and some crazy crooks would try to break into the base. It had to be better than a whole day spent doing homework.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 57

                The frown on Unseelie’s face was enough to unnerve most, yet Danny stayed stalwart as she looked over the page. They didn’t have long before she was due to arrive at the hotel where Iliana and Steven would be waiting. Officially, she was having one last debrief despite the extensive one she’d undergone after the incident at the mechanic’s shop. It was pretense, obviously, but neither Panic nor Hammerspace would complain about it, even if they did have to wait outside.

                “This is nothing, Danny. A religion based on the idea that powers are actually divine gifts, some paltry information from tourists who were clearly restricted in what they saw, a few half-assed conflicting accounts. Is this really all we have on United Avalon?”

                “It’s all I was able to get,” Danny replied. “You’re not exactly the only one interested in a nation run by Supers, but most of what’s been uncovered is being kept close to the vest. It doesn’t help that other agencies aren’t always inclined to play nice with the DVA; you know a lot of department heads don’t think we should even exist in the first place. And since we’re strictly a domestic organization, it’s not like I can kick up a big fuss about us needing information on foreign lands.”

                “Not even when their people are on our soil, getting people to kill themselves?”

                “Your own account supported the fact that Iliana never made a single threat, she only tried to talk to the man. And yes, people tend to be tight-lipped when the person asking for information has turned antagonistic toward diplomats of a country we’re allies with.” Danny let out a weary sigh and ran his hands through his hair. “Look, this is politics. If you’re expecting people to act with the greater good in mind then you’re going to be in for a lot of disappointment. Right now everyone either wants to make nice with United Avalon or be the ones who blow their operations open, but nobody wants to be caught making waves before they’ve got provable reason to. And you, Unseelie, are looking to make a lot of waves. That means you’re going to be mostly on your own until you’ve got something substantial.”

                Unseelie looked at the page for a few seconds longer before setting it aside. “I need proof to get the support, but it’s hard to get the proof with no support. Part of me wishes we’d never gotten this detail, beating up gangs is a much easier task.”

                “I can see why you’d feel that way, but as someone who actually lives in this town I’ll sleep a lot better knowing the Wayward Wraiths are overseeing this,” Danny said. “The good news is that I was able to get your interns a week off for ‘civilian integration and reconnaissance training’ like you asked. There’s no issue with them taking that week to go to UA as civilians either, so long as they use passports and travel through official channels. Just make sure they know that while over there, they are not Heroes. Not in any official capacity. If they break a law, let alone use their powers destructively, the DVA cannot and will not be able to shield them from consequences. They’re just a bunch of kids on a sight-seeing trip inspired by the diplomats they had a chance to work with. That’s the official story, and it had damn well better stay that way.”

                “Thanks, Danny. I know that can’t have been easy to swing. Angela understands the limits of what they can do, and I trust the other two to follow her judgement. Any luck reaching their guide?”

                Danny shook his head. “I routed the request through Dispatch, but she hasn’t heard back yet. You know how he likes to disappear into a job. If we don’t get something in the next few days, I’ll see if we can run him down.”

                “Give him time, let’s not go blowing an operation just to ask him for a huge favor,” Unseelie said. “So the kids are set for the trip and we’re working on the guide. Is there any movement up top after what happened today? Anything I can use while babysitting these two?”

                Another sigh. Now that she looked at him, Unseelie realized Danny had some noticeable bags under his eyes. The guy worked crazy hours as it was, throwing all these extra requests onto his back was probably taking a toll. At least she had a DVA rep who she could work with; Unseelie had heard plenty of tales from teams with much less accommodating ones.

                “Basil was a mechanic in a neighborhood known for chop shops who’d brushed off the cops at every turn. Seeing two Heroes walk in and offing himself… a lot of people are trying to spin it as a crook who knew he was busted and took the quick way out. Yes, I know its bullshit, and they probably do too, but it’s the explanation that keeps things easiest on the most people, so that’s what’s flying.”

                “What about the workers who scattered?” Unseelie asked.

                “No sightings so far, not that we’re looking that hard. No warrants, no records, not even names associated with them, and since Basil was never officially charged with anything they can’t be looked at as accessories. If they go to ground, there’s a good chance we might never find them.”

                That probably wasn’t ideal for a long-term solution, those people had clearly been leaning on Basil to lead and take care of them. Until Iliana and Steven were out of town though, Unseelie had to admit that they might be better off out of sight. She’d put in a request for resources to track them once things with the diplomats were settled, but not before. They might have a damned good reason to hide, and she wasn’t going to be the one to yank them out of the shadows.

                “Have Dispatch let me know if anything changes.” Unseelie rose from her seat, and Danny did the same.

                “Are you really going to stay with those two non-stop?”

                With a visible air of annoyance, Unseelie nodded. “Have to. I can’t ask anyone else to shoulder that burden. I might have you pop me back to the base at night so I can change and shower, but other than that I don’t plan to let those two out of my sight. Whatever is going on, I’ll be there for it. They wanted the Wayward Wraiths, and now they’ve got them.”

                “Be safe,” Danny said, giving her a quick handshake before she departed.

                Under her breath, Unseelie let out something that could almost have been considered a laugh.

                “I’m a Hero, Danny. Our job is never safe. But I’ll be as careful as I can. The last thing I want is to do something as silly as dying and letting those two have their way with my city.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 56

                Unseelie didn’t linger after dinner, only pausing long enough to change clothes and have a brief conversation with her intern. After that, she was planning to be out the door, taking Panic and Hammerspace with her for the night shift. It was decided that keeping the Heroes with interns around for the evening made the most sense, just in case they came up with questions or concerns about the impending trip.

                For Brett, he felt like he didn’t know enough to even be aware of what to ask. A cursory glance at the internet had shown him United Avalon boasted a largely tropical climate, meaning he had to dress for heat, but other than that he wasn’t really sure what to prepare for. Were they going to be walking into a militarized zone with armed men on every corner, or would it present the facade of a tourist mecca with cheap souvenirs and drinks all over the place? There were some tales from tourists online, most of which painted it as the latter. The thing was, United Avalon wasn’t high on many people’s travel destination lists thanks to the civil unrest, and the few who had gone there gave the clear impression that they’d been led along and kept in specific areas.

                The one thing that did jump out at Brett in his research was the fact that every tourist was asked whether or not they had abilities before entering the country. All of the ones posting were evidently human, so he had no idea what happened to Supers who made the trip. Maybe they just weren’t talking about it, maybe they were avoiding the country altogether, or maybe… maybe they weren’t able to come back. Surely that was him being paranoid though. If Supers were vacationing in United Avalon and not returning, their friends and family would make a ruckus, right? Brett really liked to think so, but the longer he worked as a Hero the more aware he became of the dark sentiment many humans harbored toward those with powers. A Super going to the land of Supers and staying might be brushed off by a lot of humans in positions of the authority, the reports never making their way to the DVA.

                Brett shook his head. That was crazy. Even if a few assholes out there held grudges, there was no way every Super who went to UA would vanish without someone noticing. And what was he basing this off of? The mere fact that no Supers were posting online about vacations to one spot. Working with Bayou and Gunk was expanding his horizons, but it was also starting to make him paranoid. Yes, the fact that there were only human accounts online was worth noting, however he needed to let the evidence tell him what the facts were, not try and force the facts to fit his wild theories. Right now, he knew too little to form a real hypothesis about anything. That was true of almost everything involving United Avalon, which was why they were going on this trip to start with.

                The fact that they would be asked if they were human or Super was worth knowing though. If it affected how they were treated, or what they could do within the country, then they’d have to choose their answer carefully. Even more so, they’d need to think of ways to show their gifts without giving away their true identities as Heroes, because demonstrations would almost certainly be needed if they claimed to be Supers.

                It was just one aspect of the trip, and Brett already found himself hung up with indecision. Shutting his laptop, he went back to packing for a while, getting every t-shirt and set of shorts he had into a single bag. This was more his speed, the doing rather than the dwelling. The heavy thinking was probably best left to the ones suited and trained for it, just like they’d leave taking hits to him. Brett still wanted to improve, to learn how to think more like Justin did when time allowed, but when the stakes were real he was more than happy to hand things off to the Subtlety Heroes.

*             *             *

                “You are the strongest of the interns.” Unseelie stood in Angela’s room while the intern was seated in a computer chair, watching her teacher intently. “I don’t say that to flatter you, but because you’re far enough along to understand that such a title is also a burden. Gunk is wilier than you, and Barrier is tougher, yet neither of them can match your capacity for sheer pragmatism. Charon is a survivor, a killer, a ruthless warrior who will do almost anything to survive. Most Heroes need years of practice and training to deal the final blow when a situation demands it. Yet when the time to kill comes, you don’t hesitate. Truth be told, that is one of my least favorite traits about you.”

                “If we’re being honest, same here,” Angela agreed. “I sort of wish I was more on the fence about it, more bothered by the morality. I don’t like killing, I don’t get any sort of pleasure from it. But every time it comes down to someone else or me surviving, it never feels like a hard choice. Killing comes naturally.”

                “Given your pedigree, all the things you’ve seen so early in life, I can imagine such would be the natural course. Still, regardless of where the inclination comes from, it is part of what marks you as capable. Just try to remember that it is far from the only thing that makes you strong. During this trip, you will have a Hero as a guide; I meant that, however you will be on foreign soil in unfamiliar terrain with no easy exits. If anything should go wrong, if the guide is killed or the group is separated, Gunk and Barrier will look to you. I’m not sure even they know it yet, but they would. While I dearly hope it is years before you take up the mantle of true leadership, sometimes life is not so kind. Sometimes it is thrust upon us before we think ourselves ready.”

                Unseelie stepped closer, kneeling slightly to look her intern dead in the eyes. “If it all goes awry, if your mission is compromised, then you will have only two objectives. Keep your team safe, and get home. I know you, Angela. I know the woman I agreed to take under my tutelage. I know that by giving you these commands, I risk seeing devastation in your wake. Survival is your greatest strength, even if the costs are high. So listen to me very carefully, and keep these words with you on the trip: there is no pain like burying the members of your team. None. And when they’re trusting you to lead, it’s all the worse. I don’t want you to hurt innocent people or take the sort of actions that tarnish what it is to be a Hero, but other than that I expect you to come home. All of you. If you have to make trouble to do so, if you have to break some rules, then as your team leader and teacher I will bear the responsibility for that. I find the idea far more preferable than putting more of my team in the ground. Do you understand?”

                “Yes ma’am. I understand.” Angela considered the order carefully, measuring it against her own capabilities. “I don’t know that I’m strong enough to keep us all safe, but I’ll do everything I can. At the very least, I’ll bring back something to bury if it comes to that.”

                “Much as I do like that you’re realistic in your goals, part of me hates that you’ve seen enough to gain such wisdom.” Unseelie patted her on the shoulder once before rising to her feet. “Just remember to look after one another. Beyond the tactics and the training, that is the core of what a team is. That is what will keep you all the safest.”