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Welcome to Utopia: Book One of the Utopian Dreams Series

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Dec 14, 2019.

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  1. Threadmarks: Chapter Ten: Reaction
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    It seemed like no time at all had passed before the yellow lights were flashing once more. He didn’t recognize the landscape that was blurring past the window—four hundred miles per hour was not conducive to spotting landmarks—but the automated announcement informed him that the train was approaching Nashville. He tried to ignore it, but then Luke nudged him. “Cuz.”

    “What?” he asked irritably.

    “We gotta move, unless you wanna go to Louisville.” Luke was already on his feet.

    “What?” Jericho roused himself to listen to the announcement.

    “… five minutes. All passengers stopping in Nashville, please move to Car Five. All passengers for the Nashville to Memphis train, please move to Car Six. All passengers for the Nashville to Louisville train, please remain in this car. All passengers for the Nashville to St Louis train, please move to Car One through Four. Do not …”

    To back this up, the digital sign was now showing ‘LOUISVILLE 34:31’.

    Jeez.” Jericho thumped his head back against the headrest in extreme irritation. He still hadn’t dealt with this shit about Stephen, and now he had to move again?

    “Cuz?” Luke had the overhead bins open and was holding his bag out to him.

    “Yeah, coming.” Jericho heaved himself to his feet. Taking the bag, he slung it over his shoulder. All of a sudden, that comedian’s skit didn’t seem quite so funny anymore. Stalking past Luke, he made his way forward along the train. Three cars on, he found an unattended table, shoved his bag in the overhead bin, and sat down again. By this time, he was even more pissed off than before. It didn’t help his mood that as the train passed through Nashville, its speed dropped away by more than a hundred miles an hour, to just under three-forty. I want to get there sooner, not later. What the hell’s going on here?

    Flipping on the privacy bubble, he turned fully away from Luke. He kicked his sneakers off and brought his legs up onto the seat, unseeing eyes staring out the window. Deep down, he knew he was being unfair to Luke, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. It was easy to be angry at him. It was even easier to be angry at everything.

    Between the quiet of the privacy bubble and the ease of the ride, Jericho felt his eyelids beginning to drift shut. He didn’t want to sleep. With the fires of resentment still burning hot, he wanted to keep stewing about Stephen, and how the man had betrayed him. It was something beyond his experience; up until that point, nobody he knew had ever pulled that sort of shit on him. It hurt more than he was willing to admit. Stephen had been his first serious lover, and while Luke was correct in that the older man was far from Jericho’s perfect ten—a little shorter, somewhat pudgy, and entirely too vain about his carefully styled ginger beard—Jericho had grown to love him entirely on the merits of his personality, not his looks.

    Still can’t believe he did that to me … Jericho’s eyes closed, and he slipped into a doze. It wasn’t a deep sleep, but neither was he entirely awake. He roused briefly when the gravity went weird for a few seconds. Opening his eyes, he was just in time to see the polarization fading from the windows. The view was now nothing more than fields, trees and the occasional road.

    Though more awake than asleep, he was unwilling to move or think deeply about what was going on. His drifting thoughts rolled on, until they were once more interrupted by the flashing of the yellow lights. This, and the renewed noise from the rest of the passenger car, brought him fully awake. Sitting up, he straightened his legs and stretched almost guiltily. He half-expected to feel the vertebrae in his back popping, but it didn’t happen. His Prodigy rating let his body bounce back from virtually any sort of abuse; since he had gotten his powers, he found it easy to sleep almost anywhere with few side-effects. Cramps, muscle strains and other artifacts of poor sleep were a thing of the past. Even the microfractures and cumulative damage from long nights of roof-running and punching muggers tended to heal up almost overnight.

    Luke was up again, he belatedly realized, holding their bags and waiting for him. He hadn’t even registered the PA message this time. “Ah jeez, how far forward this time?” he groaned.

    “Half the friggin’ train,” grunted Luke. It seemed that his own nerves were starting to show. Jericho still didn’t care. “Nashville left us at the back end, an’ we gotta git to number four afore we hit St Louis.”

    Jericho looked at the digital sign. Sure enough, it read ‘SPRINGFIELD MO 34:55’. The car number was 8. “Jeez,” he muttered as he slid his feet into his shoes and took his bag from Luke. “I really need to go on that asshat’s show.”

    “What asshat?” asked Luke as they started forward.

    “That comedian, Gary or Jerry or whatever. The one who does that thing about walking from New York to LA. I need to punch him right in the goddamn nose. It’s funny, right up until you gotta do it about ten times per goddamn trip.” Despite his tone, he strode forward without hesitation. Even though he’d only been asleep for twenty minutes at most, he felt refreshed and full of energy. Gotta love having powers.

    It only took them about one minute to cover the distance to the fourth car; when they got there, the digital signs were reassuringly showing ‘KANSAS CITY 48:15’. Looking over the car, he saw several empty tables. Screw it. He kept on walking.

    “Hey, cuz, where you goin’?” He stopped and turned; Luke had dropped his backpack onto the first empty table. “This‘n’s good enough, right?”

    “Nah.” Jericho shook his head. “Let’s keep going. We’re gonna be walking forward again anyway. Might as well shorten the trip.”

    For a moment, it looked as though Luke wanted to argue the point, but he retrieved his backpack instead. “Sho’nuff, let’s go.”

    They passed through two more passenger cars. About one minute before the train was due to reach St Louis, Jericho found a seat in Car 1, but refrained from stowing his bag. Luke looked at him curiously but followed suit. Jericho didn’t bother explaining, but the way he figured it, the closer the train got to Utopia City, the more crowded the cars were going to get. Moving forward as soon as possible gave them the best chance of getting a good seat.

    As soon as he heard the clunk of connection from the front of the maglev car—by now he was tuning out the announcement altogether—he was on his feet again. “Let’s go.” Without a word, Luke followed, slinging his backpack over one shoulder.

    The connecting doors hissed open in front of him, and he strode forward like an explorer venturing into unknown territory. By now he was irritated enough to see this as a challenge to be overcome. He was going to get to Utopia City. He was going to join Force Majeure. And screw Stephen, screw Luke, and screw every other asshat who wanted to get in his way.

    Train car after train car passed by as he pushed his pace. Behind him, he could hear Luke panting slightly to keep up; while the big guy was fit enough, he wasn’t at the same level as a pissed-off prodigy. Thinking about it, Jericho did slow down a little. It wasn’t Luke’s fault, and he’d stood by Jericho when it counted.

    When they reached what had now become the first car, there was only one table free. Without hesitation, Jericho put his bag into the overhead bin and slid into the window seat once more. Even as Luke caught up, he flipped on the privacy bubble and turned toward the window. St Louis was bigger than Nashville and Chattanooga, but the train was already out of the city, passing over forested back roads. What he didn’t know was why the speed of the train had just jumped again, to over four hundred seventy miles an hour. You know what? I don’t even care anymore.

    With the walk over, he was free to reflect again uninterrupted. He was beginning to go over the time that he’d met Fly Guy, to see if he could recall any hints Stephen might have dropped about his infidelity, when Luke cleared his throat. “So, uh, cuz, I jes’ wanted ta say …?”

    “What?” He really hadn’t meant to sound so snappy, but nor did he feel particularly regretful over it.

    Luke didn’t quite recoil, but he looked a little offended at Jericho’s tone. “If ya wanted ta talk, we c’n talk,” he said. “Sometimes things like this is easier when ya got someone ta vent to. Or listen to. ’Cause for my money, I figger Steve ain’t worth—”

    Jericho knew that the surge of anger he felt toward his cousin was unwarranted. Luke was only trying to help, but the trouble was that it wasn’t working. Not wanting to yell at the man he’d long considered to be his best friend, he broke eye contact and looked away from Luke, across the aisle. All the tables were occupied, but there was no eye-candy of the type that he liked.

    His gaze lingered on one woman who was working with a tablet, but only because of an odd detail; as well as long sleeves, she wore light cotton gloves. As a matter of fact, she was showing no visible skin below the neck. In her late twenties with blonde hair and glasses, she wasn’t exactly Jericho’s type—being a woman, for one thing—so he turned his attention toward Luke once more.

    “I’m still pissed at you,” he said bluntly. “You should’ve either kicked the shit out of Stephen and not let me know, or not beat him up and let me know about him. Not both.”

    “Well, what the hell do ya think I been doin’ for the last month?” retorted Luke, stung into snapping back. “I never asked ya to push me ta tell ya! I even told ya that it was like ta hurt ya! Well, now ya know! Merry fuckin’ Christmas, cuz!”

    “Yeah, but now you’ve dumped the whole goddamn problem in my lap!” If Luke had kept it in-house, rather than letting the cat out of the bag, Jericho would’ve been … if not happier, then a good deal less pissed off than he was right now.

    “Well, he’s your goddamn cheatin’-ass boyfriend!” Jericho could hear the rising anger in Luke’s tone. Part of him welcomed it; he wanted the release of yelling at someone, though intellectually he knew that Luke wasn’t the author of his troubles.

    “That! Doesn’t! Help!” It occurred to Jericho that he’d never argued with Luke so intensely before this trip; then again, he’d never been cheated on before. It put a lot of things into perspective.

    Over Luke’s shoulder, Jericho saw the woman with the tablet stand up from her seat. For a moment, he thought she was going to another car, but then it became clear she was coming over to their table. His Southern chivalry put the argument temporarily on hold and he elbowed Luke in the side. “Heads up,” he said, raising his chin slightly.

    Luke blinked at his change in tone, then turned his head to see what he was talking about. In the next moment, the woman had reached their table, sliding into the seat opposite Luke.

    “Excuse me?” Her voice was quite pleasant. Looking at her more closely, Jericho upgraded her age to late twenties or early thirties. She had an upturned nose upon which her round-lensed glasses were perched, and her blonde hair was pulled back tightly into a bun. Her gloved hands held the tablet before her like a shield.

    Jericho couldn’t think of a single, solitary thing to say. Fortunately, Luke was more eloquent. “Uh, hi, ma’am. Can we help you?”
     
  2. Threadmarks: Chapter Eleven: Bobbi
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Bobbi

    Fifteen Minutes Earlier
    Chicago - St Louis Train


    Roberta Reynolds—Bobbi, to her friends and family—was thirty-two years old. She had many regrets in her life—the ill-advised tramp stamp she’d gotten at nineteen, the asshole boyfriend she’d had before Jack, the last fight with Jack himself, and having to leave her sister Melody behind on this trip, just to name four—but going to Utopia City wasn’t one of them. She was determined to right the wrong she knew had taken place, and if it took traveling halfway across the country while rubbing shoulders with a trainload of total strangers, then that was what she was going to do.

    Travel was even less fun for her than it was for most people. Most people only had their eyes and ears and noses to notice things with. And while she wasn’t exactly crushed up against anyone, she was still in close enough proximity to make things unpleasant for her. All around her, dingy non-colors surged and changed. Unfortunately, it only got worse when she closed her eyes. Each nexus of emotion was shaped like a person, with swirls of muddy hues washing back and forth within. These were not the colors that she’d learned about in school; though she could see them with her mind’s eye, she couldn’t put them down on paper. Any attempt had the effect of bleeding them together into a grungy mess.

    It was worse when she got closer to people, both emotionally and physically. Even being in the same room as a person meant that she saw them, listened to them, became more accustomed to their presence. In time, their emotional turmoil became more vivid to her, sometimes to the extent of making her nauseous or giving her a headache. If they saw her, it became worse. And if that wasn’t bad enough, when she had skin to skin contact, their emotions threatened to overwhelm hers, to replace hers with theirs; a uniquely terrifying experience.

    On the upside, she had two useful abilities. The first radiated a calming effect which ameliorated the worst of the emotions around her, but it didn’t automatically calm people all the way down. The second made people ignore her very presence; she could become effectively invisible to everyone around her just for a few seconds, or to one person for as long as she concentrated on them.

    Unfortunately, this didn’t help with her current problem, which was why she was going to Utopia City in the first place. If anyone could help her learn to control her powers, she figured Force Majeure would know who. At the same time, she could become an established member, which would allow her to do what needed to be done.

    Yellow lights began to flash throughout the car, and she looked up.

    “Attention, all passengers. Attention, all passengers. This train will be passing through St Louis in six minutes. All passengers stopping in St Louis, please move to Cars Six through Seven. All passengers for the St Louis to Louisville train, please move to Car Eight. All passengers for the St Louis to Nashville train, please move to Car Nine. All passengers for the St Louis to the Kansas City train, please move to Cars Ten through Eleven. All passengers for the St Louis to Springfield Missouri train, please remain in this car. Do not forget your luggage. Utopia Maglev Lines takes no responsibility for luggage left on the train or passengers failing to make their stop. We hope you have enjoyed your trip. This train will be passing through St Louis in five minutes …”

    The nearest digital sign now read ‘SPRINGFIELD MO 34:58’, with the number ‘1’ indicating that she was in the first car. Bobbi didn’t want to go to Springfield (Missouri or otherwise), so she stood up from her seat. Reclaiming her drag-bag from the overhead locker, she started on her trek back through the train. Once she trudged on through the connecting doors, she felt the burden lift from her shoulders as the emotions connected to the people behind her dwindled to nothing. Ahead of her, there was the promise of more, but she didn’t know these people. She’d spent no time in this car so far, so she could stand to stay a while before it became untenable. Unfortunately, she needed the tenth passenger car back, so she moved on once more.

    There was some asshole comedian—Gary Brock was his name, she thought—whose show incorporated a routine about maglev travel called ‘Walking from New York to LA’. At the time she’d watched it, she’d wondered why people thought it was funny. It was even less so now, especially considering how long the damn cars were—a hundred feet or more, when the passages between them were factored in. By the time she made it back to Car Nine, the digital sign read ‘KANSAS CITY 31:03’. Oh, good. This should be fine for the moment.

    There were two tables free. With a sigh of relief, she collapsed into a seat at the closer one. While she wasn’t particularly unfit, she figured that she’d just power-walked the equivalent of four city blocks in as many minutes. With the drag-bag firmly between her calves, she leaned back in the seat. I’ve got to admit, they don’t skimp on the comforts.

    Once, when she was about ten, she’d traveled with her mother and sister on the normal train to visit Grandpop and Grandmam in Chicago. It had taken hours each way, she recalled, and had rattled and been uncomfortable. It had also smelled funny. The maglev had taken her only half an hour to get from Indianapolis to Chicago and another three-quarters of an hour from Chicago to St Louis, and there’d been a singular lack of rattles and discomfort, or even odd smells, on either trip.

    The digital timer was down to thirty seconds, with the last passengers hurrying through, when a tone began to sound. The connecting doors on the other end of the passage slid shut, followed by the matching doors on Bobbi’s end. A moment later, she heard the muffled ‘thoomthoom’ as the exterior doors also sealed off. There was a jolt as the maglev car separated from the one in front. While she couldn’t feel it, she knew that the car was peeling off onto a secondary rail, aiming to meet up with the westbound train.

    When the timer read ‘29:30’, she felt the less pronounced clunk that signaled the linkup with the new train. As if triggered by the bump, the yellow flashing lights shut themselves off and slid back into their recesses. The digital sign showed that she was now sitting in Car One. Great, now to wait for the influx. She took the time to pull up the cuffs of the light cotton gloves she was wearing and tuck them into her sleeves. There were more people in this train car than in the one she’d come from, and she only expected the crush to get worse as they got closer to Utopia City. Fortunately, she had anticipated something like this before even setting off on the trip, and thus had taken precautions. Skin to skin contact was something that she wanted to avoid. Once the last table was taken up, she knew that others would be taking up the spare seats at her table, but she wanted to have a little time to herself so that she could get her head together. Unzipping a compartment on her drag-bag, she pulled out her tablet. A nice soothing game of CogWars should fit the bill, she decided.

    She was still in the opening stages of the game, establishing the defensive capabilities of her fortress and getting her offensive units started, when a fluctuation in the general emotional level around her caught her attention. Don’t look up, she told herself. Don’t look up. She looked up.

    Two guys were had just sat down at the last free table, diagonally across the aisle from her. Both were tall; while one was a heavy-set good-looking black guy, his companion was skinnier with long dark brown hair, bound back with a hair tie. The wiry guy had a lot of ugly emotions washing through his makeup, while his big friend was nursing some irritation, as far as she could see. Don’t get involved. Ignore them. They don’t exist. Lowering her eyes, she tried to go back to her game.

    Unfortunately, seeing them had opened her power to them. The skinnier guy had some sort of confused anger about him, jabbing at her brain like broken glass. She could handle it … just. Right up until it pushed into the forefront of her attention. She knew what had happened; he’d looked at her and maybe thought about her for a moment. That was all it took. He didn’t need to even have an opinion of her, but the fact that he’d noticed her meant that his emotions were pushing harder at her barriers.

    With a wince, she looked up again. Now the two were arguing back and forth. While the silence showed that they were inside an active privacy bubble—so handy for someone with her problems—their expressions made it clear that this wasn’t some mild disagreement. And the more attention she paid to them, the more their emotions affected her.

    This made for a problem. Utopia City wasn’t far past Kansas City, but at her best estimate, she had three-quarters of an hour before the train got there. Forty-five minutes of this kind of mental jabbing and she’d have a migraine the size of Mount Rushmore, or she’d be puking in the restroom. Or both; it was hard to predict.

    Her options were limited. One was that she could look downstairs to see if there were any spare seats. On balance, she was reasonably sure that there would not be. Alternatively, she could go into the second car and ride it the rest of the way to Utopia City. However, that led to the risk of getting too close to some of the passengers there, who might also be traveling her way.

    There was a third option, which she was reluctant to go with. Unfortunately, it seemed like the best of a bad series of choices. Taking a deep breath, she took hold of her drag-bag and stood up. The long-haired guy saw her coming and said something to his friend, who also turned to look at her. Well, in for a penny …

    Their emotions, which had been spiking almost out of control, were even now calming down, as if they’d only needed an excuse to stop arguing. The skinnier guy’s emotional makeup had anger and sadness and loss—oh, shit. He’s lost someone. No … he’s been dumped—roiling through his body. Underlying all that was a solid core of loyalty and camaraderie with the muscular black guy, but there was a thread of anger toward him as well … what the hell’s going on here?

    The big guy wasn’t as angry as his wiry friend, but he did have a level of irritation and frustration overlaying the same bone-deep loyalty that he shared with the white guy. Okay, they’re not about to kill each other. Good.

    “Excuse me?” she said tentatively, exerting the calming aspect of her power. If she hadn’t been on the verge of a killer headache, it would have almost been funny. As if by magic, their anger began to drain away even faster than she’d expected. The relief was palpable, but she kept the soothing power going anyway.

    She held her tablet in front of her as a symbolic fence. Here’s the boundary between you and me. Please respect it.

    The muscular African American spoke first, while his companion’s emotions continued to whirl in confusion. “Uh, hi, ma’am. Can we help you?” He had a nice deep voice to go with his solid build and good looks. The drawl put his origins at someplace south of the Mason–Dixon line, but the polite tone was matched with a steady gaze and a level of ingrained caution.

    “I hope so,” she said with a smile. The calming effect kept going, washing over the two guys and dealing with the last of their anger. For a mercy, her headache was also receding. “I’m traveling to Utopia City. Are you going there too?”

    It wasn’t much of a guess—unless she was way off the mark, the car they were in was one of those destined to stop in Utopia City—but she read flashes of surprise from each of them anyway. “Uh, yeah,” said the wiry guy. Caution began to swirl through his emotional makeup as well. “We are. Why?” The question came out perhaps a little harsher than she suspected he’d intended, but the twinge of pain that resulted was gone in a moment.

    Showing a temporary resurgence of irritation, the big guy jabbed his long-haired friend in the ribs with his elbow, not gently. “Please ignore him, ma’am. He’s just now found out his boyfriend’s been seein’ other people.” He offered a surprisingly charming smile. “I’m sorry; where are my manners? I’m Luke. This rather insensitive jerk is my cousin Jericho. I’m very pleased to meet you.” He held out his hand.

    Bobbi shook it, equally glad for the glove and for the calming effect that she was still maintaining. “Hi, Luke. You can call me Bobbi. And I’m sorry to hear about that, Jericho. I had an absolute dirtbag of a boyfriend who cheated on me with my best friend, not so long ago.” The corner of her mouth quirked upward. “Ex-best friend, I should say.”

    At her comment, an upwelling of curiosity flooded into Jericho’s makeup, replacing the caution almost completely. “What did you do?”

    She shrugged, pretending nonchalance. “Kicked his sorry ass to the curb. Went through some self-destructive behavior until I got it out of my system.” Did something really stupid, got powers. “Went back to work. Found a new boyfriend.” And maybe lost him again. Go, me.

    “At work?” Luke stared at her, curiosity coloring his emotions as well. Caution was still there, more so than in Jericho’s. “Whereabouts do you work? I mean, if you don’t mind me asking, ma’am?”

    She smiled. “I have to say, I like a guy with manners. I work in the office at Re-Cycle, the best motorbike repair shop in Indianapolis.”

    Interest flared in Luke’s color scheme as if she’d flipped a switch. “Bike repair, huh? Is it just office work, or do you ever get your hands dirty?” He put his own hands on the table, where she could see the calluses and the oil ingrained under the nails.

    “Not in the shop, but I do own a bike of my own,” she admitted with just a little pride. “I do all the maintenance work on her myself.” Her own hands were clean under the gloves, as were her nails, but only because she worked at keeping them that way.

    “Really?” asked Luke, almost challengingly. “So what do you ride, then?”

    “Harley softail,” she shot back. “You?”

    Amusement washed through his emotional mix along with an increase in the interest, clearing away nearly all the caution. “You sound pretty certain that I ride.”

    She made a rude noise with her lips. “You say you don’t, I’m calling bullshit.”

    Jericho chuckled, his amusement matching Luke’s. “She’s got you there.” Tilting his head toward Luke, he added, “He’s got a road bike and sometimes he rides motocross too. Wouldn’t catch me doing that. Too goddamn dangerous.”

    “That’s because you’re a wuss, cuz.” Luke rolled his eyes. “One of these days you’ll learn to live a little.” Belying his tone, his emotional palette showed a level of deep-seated affection toward Jericho.

    “Oh, ho,” Jericho retorted, his eyes lighting up as he grinned at Bobbi. “Should’ve seen his face earlier, when we were pulling out of Savannah. Figure there’s still fingernail marks in the armrests in whatever car we were on.”

    “Now that’s just a low blow, J.” Luke’s elbow was lazier this time, and Jericho blocked it with his arm. Bobbi could see from their attitudes and their emotional washes that they were beginning to relax. Part of this was probably due to the influence of her power, but most of it came from their rock-solid friendship and affection toward each other.

    “So, I’m guessing you work with bikes yourself, or is it cars?” she hazarded, nodding toward Luke’s oil-stained hands.

    “Cars,” he confirmed. “I work in a garage. We get the occasional bike in, though. There was a Gold Wing a while ago. The rider managed to wrap it around a tree. You’ve never seen such a god-almighty mess.”

    “The hell?” Bobbi frowned in confusion. “Gold Wing’s a road bike. How’d it even get close to a tree?”

    Luke shrugged. “It was a wet road and he lost control. Shit happens.”

    Bobbi nodded, agreeing with the age-old mantra of bike riders everywhere. No matter how careful you are … “Shit happens,” she echoed.

    She allowed herself to feel a sliver of hope. Now they’d calmed down, Luke and Jericho seemed to be nice enough guys. If they kept the conversation light, she figured she could handle the rest of the trip to Utopia City easily enough. This might not be as bad as I thought.

    It was something to hope for, anyway.
     
  3. Threadmarks: Chapter Twelve: Politics
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Politics

    Jericho stood up from his seat and went to slide past Luke. His cousin looked up from the intense technical discussion he was having with Bobbi—something about suspensions and crossovers, which went way over Jericho’s head—and raised his eyebrows. “Is everything all right, cuz? We’re not boring you, are we?”

    “Nope. It’s fine.” Somewhat to his surprise, he meant it. “Just hitting the restroom then the vending machines. See what they’ve got.” He looked from one to the other. “Want anything?”

    Luke nodded. “Actually, yeah. Get me a sandwich, if you don’t mind.” He glanced over at Bobbi. “The sandwiches are seriously good, here. So are the cookies.”

    “Ooh. Food. I forgot to eat before I got back on the train.” Bobbi smiled up at Jericho. For a girl, he thought, she had a nice smile. “Can I get one of each, please?”

    “Sure.” Jericho got out past Luke. Once he’d finished in the restroom, he ducked through the connecting doors into the next passenger car and had a look at the selection in the vending machines. Paying for it was simple; there was a swipe sensor for his MagCard, which he presumed added the cost of the snacks to his overall fare. It’s how I’d do it. Picking out three sandwiches and a cookie, he swiped to pay for them and collected them as they were dispensed. As an afterthought, he turned to the drink dispenser across the aisle and got three bottles of water the same way. There were other drinks available, including iced coffee and carbonated sodas, but water was the cheapest, and he didn’t need a shot of caffeine right then.

    He’d seen Luke pull his speech upgrade trick before, occasionally. It was like his cousin could change gears in his brain; on the street, he talked street. In polite company, he worded things more discreetly.

    When Jericho collected the water-bottles, he found that they were made of glass instead of plastic, which was a little unusual, but not overly so. Probably a UML thing.

    Carrying the lot without dropping anything was a little difficult, but he cheated by surreptitiously sticking the bottles together with a glue-tag. While this had the effect of causing the surface of the water in each bottle to curve oddly as the liquid clustered toward the glue-tag, he didn’t think anyone would notice. With a sense of accomplishment, he made it back through the connecting doors and dumped his bounty on the table, dissolving the ’tag as he did so.

    “Ooh, thank you,” Bobbi enthused as she grabbed one of the sandwiches. “I’m starved.” She grinned up at him as she pulled the packet open. “You’ll make some lucky guy a good husband someday.”

    Jericho returned the grin as he slid past Luke. Somewhat to his surprise, he was rather enjoying Bobbi’s company. She’d barely blinked when Luke told her about him being gay, which was when he would’ve expected her to make her excuses and leave. But she hadn’t. In fact, she’d come straight out with the revelation that she’d been cheated on, too. It gave Jericho a weird feeling of kinship with her, although he was just a little jealous that she’d found another boyfriend so fast. Straight girls have all the luck. Though there was a vibe there that he wasn’t a hundred percent sure about. It seemed to him that she was unhappier than someone with a steady boyfriend should be, though she hadn’t given Luke the eye yet. And why’s she traveling alone? Did he pull a Stephen on her?

    “Hey, Jericho,” she said as he broke open his own sandwich packet. “Can I ask a personal question?”

    “Um, I guess,” he ventured. “Don’t promise to answer it, though.” He grinned to show he wasn’t totally serious.

    “That’s fair.” She smiled understandingly. “So, um, how’d you find out about your boyfriend?”

    Whoof, he decided. She doesn’t ask the easy ones. “Uh, I only found out because he told me.” He hooked his thumb at Luke without looking at him, then rolled his eyes. “Not that we’ve even officially broken up yet. Stephen doesn’t know I know.”

    “Really?” Bobbi’s smile widened to a grin, one with lots of teeth in it. “So, you can come back and he’ll be all hey, let’s take up where we left off, and you can be no, bitch, we’re done. And then you share pics of his face all over the internet.”

    “Maybe, I guess.” While Jericho liked to think he could pull off a line like that with Stephen, in his experience daydreams rarely matched up to reality. “He might cry. I hate it when he cries.” Though he’d always liked it when Stephen comforted him when he cried. Their relationship was weird like that.

    “Okay, right, so this is what you do.” Bobbi’s eyes were alight with interest. “When you go back, you start moving your stuff out—you are living with him, right?”

    Jericho nodded. “Six months now.” A wave of pain washed through him. Six months. How long has he been lying to me?

    She nodded understandingly, and the pain faded away again.

    God damn, it’s nice to talk to someone who understands.

    “Right,” she continued briskly. “So, you start moving your stuff out. You don’t tell him. A little bit at a time. This way, when you do break up with the cheating asshole, there’s no big packing scene, because that’s so awkward. You’re trying to put clothes into the suitcase, he’s trying to pull them out …”

    “I know, right?” Jericho rolled his eyes. “He didn’t even want me to take this trip without him. I had to repack my bag three times, because he kept finding it and unpacking it. And I wasn’t even breaking up with him then.”

    “Wow, harsh.” She reached across the table. “I think you’re better off. I really do.”

    Jericho took her hand for a moment. Her grip was stronger than he’d expected, but then, she did maintenance on her own motorbike. “You’re probably right.” He thought about that for a moment. Wait one cotton-pickin’ second. Luke hadn’t told him outright, but he’d lied about it in the clumsiest way possible, which was why Jericho had thought to ask. He turned to his cousin, suspicion building in his mind. “You wanted to tell me. Didn’t you?”

    If Jericho hadn’t known his cousin as well as he did, the guileless gaze Luke gave him would have fooled him for sure. As it was, it just confirmed Jericho’s suspicions. And, from the grin on Bobbi’s face, hers too. For his part, Luke shrugged carelessly. “’Course I wanted ta tell ya, cuz. We’re kin. Doesn’t mean I was gonna, ’til ya asked.”

    “Right.” Jericho thumped him lightly on the shoulder with his fist. “Asshat.” He could have thanked Luke sincerely, but that would have only made his cousin intensely uncomfortable, so Jericho resorted to Bro Code 101; Shoulder Punches Are Always Appropriate. This was a system that worked for the both of them.

    “So, talking about awkward subjects,” Bobbi ventured after a moment. “Have you heard the latest about Team Power?” She sounded a lot more serious now.

    Jericho looked at her, frowning. “I saw one of those Amber Alert posters for Vanessa in the train station, but it was an old one, and I haven’t had the time to pay attention to the news over the last few days. Been kinda busy.”

    Luke’s brow wrinkled. “I’ve heard about them, but not much more than that. They’re a family team, right? Out of Chicago? They don’t wear masks?”

    “That’s right.” Jericho nodded. “Adam Power’s an independent, an artificer. Powersuit user. Him and Tesseract have been working out of Chicago for … jeez, it must be more than twenty years now.”

    “Since nineteen-ninety, so yeah, twenty-three years,” Bobbi clarified. “They first teamed up to capture Charnel, and they just kept working together after that. They unmasked and got married in ’ninety-four, and officially announced the name change to Team Power right after.” She sighed. “I remember watching the TV spot as a kid. The Ghast crashed the wedding and tried to kidnap Tess for some stupid hostage scheme, but she threw her bouquet in his face and lit into him. Adam had to pull her off him. They said later on that she broke his jaw in two places and busted three of his ribs. I so wanted to be her, right then.”

    “Damn,” muttered Luke. “Tough girl.”

    Jericho tilted his head, not denying the point. He also imagined, but didn’t say, that getting married to Adam Power might have also figured into the daydreams of a girl of that age. “Well, she is a prodigy. Mind you, it’s also pretty impressive that she’s had two kids since then and it hasn’t slowed her down any.” He counted on his fingers. “Vanessa in ’ninety-five and Buddy in … ’oh-three?”

    “’Oh-two,” Bobbi said firmly. “He’s eleven.”

    “Okay, this is something I don’t get.” Luke looked from Jericho to Bobbi. “How does it work with them not having secret identities? Anywhere they go, folks know them. They wouldn’t have any privacy.”

    “Well, this is true,” admitted Jericho. “They haven’t had secret identities since just before the wedding. But it wasn’t exactly their idea. Remember how I told you about Unmask? They faked a mugging to decoy Tesseract in, then the ‘victim’ ripped her mask off and they got photos of her face. Tried to blackmail her and Adam with them. This was just after their coup with Surgeon One. They must’ve thought they were untouchable.”

    Luke scowled. “Not cool.”

    “No argument,” agreed Bobbi. “But Adam and Tess doubled down. They changed their legal names to their superhero names by deed poll in secret then unmasked in public, just before they announced their plans to get married.”

    “Ballsy.” Luke looked from Bobbi to Jericho. “What’d Unmask do about that? From what you told me; I can’t see them taking that sort of thing lying down.”

    Jericho nodded. “You’re right, but they didn’t get the chance to do anything at all. See, they were banking on the blackmail keeping the heroes honest. What they didn’t count on was how well Adam and Tesseract worked together as a team. Between Adam’s tech and Tesseract’s skills, they tracked down every one of the idiots trying to blackmail them and gathered enough evidence of the actual blackmail demands that the day after they unmasked, they were able to sweep all of them up and hand them over to the cops. The evidence made it a slam-dunk case. Go straight to jail, do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars. And given that Unmask had been trying to do to Tesseract what their buddies had already done to Surgeon One, they got hammered. Maximum sentence, forget about parole.”

    Bobbi grinned and took up the tale. “So, when the dead-man switch triggered and Tess’s face got sent to every news outlet in the city, it was a nothing story. People already knew what they looked like. And they had enough goodwill banked by that time that people just shrugged and let them be. By the time the kids came along, Team Power having public identities was a fact of life. Vanessa started coming out with her parents when she was ten, and Buddy made his debut last month, I think.”

    “Wait, did the kids get powers from their folks?” Luke was looking even more confused now. “I didn’t even know that was a thing.”

    Jericho shrugged. “It’s not, as far as I know. But Adam made power armor—no pun intended—for both kids. By all reports, it’s pretty kickass.” He looked over at Bobbi. “So, what’s happened with Vanessa since then? Any new developments?”

    Bobbi grimaced. “According to leaked police reports just now making the rounds, Vanessa dropped into a precinct station on the night she disappeared, wearing her armor. She claimed that her dad molested her, and that her mom tried to cover it up. But when they called her parents, she bolted. Literally busted out through someone’s office and flew out of there. Vanished into thin air, if you can believe it.”

    Jericho’s eyes widened. “You’re shitting me.” He recalled the images and footage he’d seen of Team Power, portraying the charismatic Adam Power as a true American hero and family man. “That can’t be right. Can it?” He wanted to believe it wasn’t true. But there’d been other incidences in the news of well-known ‘family men’ who’d done that and worse. He’d even encountered a case or two in and around Savannah. If they could do it …

    “Hey, it’s just something I saw on the late news last week. I mean, I know it’s bullshit. It’s gotta be. Adam and Tess are heroes, for God’s sake. They’ve risked their lives to save more people than I’ve had hot dinners. Adam nearly died fighting Kraken back in the nineties. There’s no way in hell he would’ve hurt Vanessa.” Her gloved hands, on the table, clenched into fists. “But the way they keep harping on it, like he’s already been tried and convicted, flat-out burns me.”

    Luke frowned as he unconsciously echoed Jericho’s words. “That can’t be right. They love covering heroes in the news. I’ve seen it myself, a hundred times. They can’t get enough of them.”

    “Depends on the hero, and depends on the news outlet,” Bobbi said flatly. “Even the most reputable outlets have their biases, and the people going after Adam Power are pretty sleazy. They love controversy, the more the better, and they’re willing to bend the truth pretty hard to get it.”

    “Biases?” Jericho blinked, confused. “What do you mean, biases?” He hadn’t known Bobbi for long, but he respected her for her views and outlook. It was obvious that she didn’t believe the molestation story for a moment, which was her right. The trouble was, he didn’t know Adam Power at all, so if the news outlets were painting him as a monster, perhaps there was some truth in there? The news was the news, wasn’t it?

    “What, you really don’t know?” Bobbi looked at him, then shook her head. “Christ, I thought everyone knew. It’s all about politics. Conservative news outlets prefer government-sponsored heroes over independents, and they’ll cover teams over single players. If you’re neither, you’ve got to bend over backward to give them good copy or you get relegated to page ten, if you make any column inches at all. And that’s if they don’t just start making up dirt about you.”

    “What the hell?” Jericho stared at Luke, whose expression of surprise likely mirrored his own. “That is not something I knew about.”

    “Yeah, well.” Bobbi’s distaste was obvious from her tone of voice. “Unfortunately, it’s the way things work. Everyone pretends it doesn’t, but if anyone tries to change it, they run into a brick wall. It’s the price of doing business.”

    “Huh. Anyway.” Jericho shook his head, trying to get back on track. “So, what you’re saying is that the conservative gutter press is taking pot-shots at Adam Power, but he can’t prove he didn’t do anything? That sucks.” If that was the actual case, of course. He wasn’t sold on the idea of Adam Power being a child molester, and he certainly didn’t want it to be true, but his upbringing had predisposed him toward not jumping to a specific conclusion just because he didn’t like the alternative.

    “Especially if Vanessa never shows up again,” Luke agreed. “Even if he never did anything to her, he’s going to have a hell of a time proving it if she’s in the wind.” Behind his tone was a certainty rooted in the circumstances from which he’d been born. Jericho had never heard all the stories of his cousin’s childhood, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to.

    Bobbi looked a little upset at Luke’s words, and Jericho took the time to elbow his cousin surreptitiously in the ribs. Nice going, asshat.

    “But what if there was a way to prove it?” she asked. “Prove that the police report’s bullshit, I mean?”

    Jericho shook his head regretfully. “Well, nobody’s going to prove that. The cops would’ve only taken down what she told them. Proving what she said was bullshit? Can’t be done outside of a court of law. Sucks, but that’s the way it is.” And of course, to fight allegations like that, charges would have to be laid and then disproven in court, which would require both sides to be confident enough in their respective versions of the story to be willing to show up in the first place. Without Vanessa there to give her side of things, that wasn’t going to happen. And without a clear acquittal, the negative publicity would probably sink Team Power once and for all, even if Adam Power was innocent of all charges. The court of public goddamn opinion strikes again.

    “No, but what if someone with powers looked into his head and said for a certainty that he didn’t do it?” Bobbi’s expression held a certain intensity. Jericho couldn’t tell where she was going with this.

    “What, like Thinkster?” Luke shook his head. “Sorry, that dog won’t hunt. Poor sumbitch OD’d last year.”

    Jericho raised his eyebrows slightly at that. I told you that myself, about an hour ago. Smartass.

    “Uh, no.” Bobbi looked just a little confused. “I’ve never even heard of Thinkster. I’m talking about what if someone could read, you know, emotions. Look at someone while they’re talking and say, ‘he’s telling the truth’. Look deeper and be able to say, ‘this guy would never do that’. That sort of thing.”

    When Stephen was thinking deeply, he had a habit of stroking his beard. Jericho found himself emulating that action and stopped in irritation. “Okay …” He took the time to think his next few words through. “Assuming there’s someone like that out there, which isn’t a given … I mean, how many Enabled out there can hear peoples’ thoughts, anyway? Only one I ever heard of was Thinkster.”

    “There was Mindscrew,” offered Bobbi. “He was one of the bad ones, back in the nineties.”

    “Oh, right, yeah,” Jericho said. “Forgot about him.”

    “With a name like that, I’m thinking either villain, or a hero who really didn’t give a shit about being liked,” Luke said with a chuckle, spraying sandwich crumbs on the table.

    “Villain,” Bobbi confirmed. “One of the real assholes. He started slow, hit a few casinos and cleaned out the blackjack tables until they got wise. Once his powers got known, he put on a mask and went into full-on crime. Blackmail, grand larceny, political manipulation and so on. Any inconvenient witnesses turned up dead. By the time he dropped out of sight in ’ninety-seven, he was right up there on the terror villain list.”

    “And he called himself ‘Mindscrew’ and got away with it?” Luke shook his head. “Goddamn Enabled. I swear.”

    Bobbi smirked. “Well, originally he tried to get them to call him Mind-Fucker, but the news organizations couldn’t run that without bleeping it, so they called him Mindscrew instead. In the end, it stuck.”

    Jericho nodded. “Anyway, getting back to the point. Let’s assume there’s someone like that, but not a villain, and not strung out on drugs. I guess it wouldn’t be too hard to prove they had the power to look into peoples’ heads … but how do they prove that what they’re saying is true? I mean, nobody else can see what they can see, yeah?” Like what happens to me, every time this goddamn train does its sideways-flip thing. He could get used to it, but he knew he’d never really enjoy it.

    Bobbi raised her finger triumphantly. “Ah, but what if that person was a member of Force Majeure? They work with the government, right? That gives them kinda law-enforcement status, right? They could do it, and the judge would have to listen.”

    “They’d still have to get around what the girl said about him,” Luke put in. “I mean, that’s seriously damaging, right there.”

    “So, I’ll just have to find out where she’s gone and talk to her, too,” Bobbi said promptly. “Find out why she’s …” She trailed to a halt, looking stricken. “Uhhh …”
     
  4. Threadmarks: Chapter Thirteen: Powers
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Powers

    There was a long silence, during which Jericho and Luke both slowly sat up and looked at her. At first, she shrank away, but then she drew strength from somewhere and met their gazes firmly.

    “Well, dang,” remarked Luke, in what Jericho decided had to be the most eloquent understatement his cousin had ever uttered. “I’d say you’re shittin’ me but I’m pretty sure you’re not.”

    Bobbi cleared her throat. “Please don’t tell anyone,” she said quietly, articulating each word with care. “I mean, I’m reasonably certain that you won’t, but I thought it needed saying.”

    “Not a word,” Jericho assured her. He peered at her. “So … all this time, you’ve been reading our minds?” How much do you know about us already?

    “Not minds, not minds,” Bobbi said, her voice hasty. “Emotions. I don’t know what you’re thinking. I can only see what you’re feeling. And it’s no fun at all, let me tell you. Every time someone gets upset or excited or angry around me, it feels like I’ve just been punched in the face. Especially if they’re pissed at me. Headache central.”

    “So, why’d you sit down with us?” asked Luke practically, beating Jericho by about two seconds.

    “Self-preservation,” she explained succinctly. “I thought if I sat down and talked to you, maybe helped you get over your argument, you’d calm down. The only other option was leaving the car altogether, and I didn’t know if things would be any better elsewhere.”

    “Huh. So, you sitting down with us was the equivalent of knocking on the neighbor’s door at two AM and asking him to turn his stereo down.” Jericho rubbed his chin, then dropped his hand to the table again. “Uh, sorry about making you feel uncomfortable.”

    “Oh, trust me, it could’ve been a lot worse.” Bobbi’s voice was definite. “You calmed right down, and neither one of you has tried to hit on me.”

    “If I can ask a question, ma’am?” ventured Luke.

    She huffed a sigh. “Sure, ask away. But for God’s sake, stop calling me ‘ma’am’. You’re making me feel old. Call me Bobbi.”

    “It’s a respect thing, m—uh, Miz Bobbi.” Luke raised his gaze to her face. “Those gloves. Are they about your power too?”

    “Yes.” She raised her left hand and wiggled the fingers. “Skin contact makes it a whole lot worse. Ordinary emotions are bad enough, but if someone’s feeling strong emotions, it’s like being caught in a flood where I don’t know what’s mine and what’s theirs, or if I’ll still be me once it’s over.”

    Jericho winced. “That sounds like it kind of sucks. A lot.”

    “Yeah, no shit.” Her voice was dry, almost hiding the underlying pain. “It’s why I’m going to Utopia City. Because I know he’s innocent, but I can’t do a damn thing about it, right now.”

    “You know he’s innocent?” Jericho sat forward. “You’re certain about that?” While he’d been willing to keep an open mind, the surety in her voice called to him.

    “One hundred percent.” Bobbi took a deep breath. “See, Melody gave me the idea. She’s my younger sister, and we share everything about everything. She suggested that we go to Chicago and talk to Adam Power face to face, so I could work out for myself whether he’s lying or not. But she’s just started in her new job, and the earliest she could arrange time off was next week. When I heard that he was holding a press conference, I jumped the gun and took the train to Chicago this morning. Melody wanted to come too, but I told her not to endanger her job, that she could come join me when she got the time off.”

    “What happened?” asked Luke. “When you got to Chicago, I mean. Did you get to talk to him?”

    Bobbi shook her head. “No, I didn’t, but I did get to see him speak. He was absolutely adamant that he hadn’t touched or hurt Vanessa in any way … and my power says he was being totally truthful.” Reaching up, she rubbed her forehead. “Trouble was, there were a lot of people in that crowd and emotions were running high. I had to leave, or I would’ve ended up in the hospital with a three-day migraine. From there, I decided to go straight to Utopia City and see if I could speak to someone about jumping the queue. I mean, I applied last week but I haven’t heard back yet. Can’t hurt to ask, right? If anyone’s got access to people who can help me learn to get a handle on my powers, it’ll be Force Majeure. And once I’m in, I can get in contact with Team Power and let them know I can help clear this up once and for all.” She paused, her eyes narrowing. “And right now, you’re not showing nearly enough surprise at finding out that I’m Enabled. What’s going on here? Did you already know?”

    Jericho shared a glance with Luke. “What do you think? Tell her or not?” There were risks involved, he knew. There were always risks involved with sharing a secret this big. The fact that she’d already inadvertently outed herself to them was a point in favor of sharing, but there was more to consider than that. After all, they could keep her secret without ever revealing Jericho’s. On the other hand, she already knows that something’s up.

    Luke frowned, apparently considering options. “I’m thinking …”

    “Wait a minute.” Bobbi looked at Jericho, then at Luke. “Are you … one of you has got powers too. Am I right?” She blinked rapidly a couple of times. “Shit, I’m right. Which of you is it?” After another glance at Jericho, she focused on Luke. “You. It’s you, isn’t it? What powers do you have?”

    Pressing his hand over his mouth, Luke bent over and burst into snorting laughter. Jericho would have done the same, but he was too surprised to do so, not to mention just a little hurt. What, don’t I look heroic enough?

    This must have communicated itself to Bobbi somehow, because her eyes widened as she looked at Jericho again. “Oh, shit. It’s not Luke. It’s you, isn’t it?”

    Taking refuge in sarcasm, Jericho leaned nonchalantly back in his seat. “Well, you’re not exactly spoiled for choice right now, are you?”

    “Asshole.” But she was grinning as she said it, in the same way that Serena or Olivia would have smiled when they said, ‘Bless your heart’. “You’ve really got powers?”

    Jericho sat forward and picked up his water-bottle, which was still about half full. Swiping his other hand under it, he deposited a glue-tag on the bottom. Then he leaned across the table and placed the bottle in front of her. “Pick that up,” he invited.

    “Why?” Her expression was justifiably wary. “What’d you do to it? It’s not going to explode or something, is it?”

    He shook his head. “Nothing harmful. Go ahead, pick it up.” A side-glance showed that Luke had gotten over his hilarity, though if he smirked any harder, he might do himself an injury. Given that Jericho had pulled exactly the same trick on him back when he came out with his powers to his cousin, this wasn’t really a surprise.

    Bobbi reached out and carefully took hold of the bottle, then went to lift it. It didn’t move. With a frown, she tried harder. Jericho heard her grunt under her breath as she exerted more force, but it was only when she used both hands and a lot of effort that she was able to unstick the bottle from the table. She put it back on the table—where it promptly stuck itself down again—and stared at him. “What did you do? Are you one of those guys who can move things with their minds?”

    “Telekinetic, and no,” he assured her. “I’ve got gravity powers. I just gave the bottom of that bottle its own personal gravity field. Like a tiny black hole.” Dismissing the effect, he nodded toward the bottle. “Try it again.”

    This time, she lifted it easily. Turning it over in her hand, she examined it minutely. “I can’t see any difference.”

    “You won’t,” he said. “My power doesn’t make any actual changes that I can see.”

    “Huh. Well, shit,” she mused, passing the water bottle from one hand to the other, hefting it up and down as though she were testing the weight. “That must come in handy. What do you call yourself?”

    He smiled and bowed slightly in his seat. “G-Man, at your service, ma’am.”

    “What, like the Bureau?” she asked, looking a little startled. “I didn’t know they had any Enabled working for them.”

    “Hah, nope.” He chuckled. “It stands for ‘gravity’, but you probably had that figured out. I haven’t got any formal connection to regular law enforcement.” He couldn’t stop his lip from curling slightly as he said that.

    A smile lifted the corner of Bobbi’s mouth. “You’re not a fan?”

    “Not particularly,” Jericho admitted. “If you hadn’t noticed, the justice system isn’t known for being tolerant of anyone outside the cis-het norm. Folks like me’ve been screwed over way too many times for …” He trailed off and stopped as he experienced a flashbulb moment. “Wait a minute. What you said earlier about politics, and the way they’re going after Adam Power. Is that why I’ve never made it into the big papers?”

    Bobbi shrugged. “You’re from Savannah, right? Georgia, no disrespect intended, is about as conservative as it gets. You’re non-government, you’re an independent player and you’re gay. That’s three strikes out of three, right there. The only way you could be worse off is if you had the same color skin as Luke. Are there any other heroes in Savannah, and do they show up as liberal or conservative?”

    Jericho snorted. “Only one, now. Pickup. He drives, and I shit you not, a pickup truck that turns into a big-ass mech, with a goddamn Confederate flag painted on the hood. And he makes the front page every other week.” Everything made so much sense to him, now. There was one paper in Savannah that carried articles about him, but that was a weekly and sometimes it seemed all Pickup had to do to get headlines in the dailies was rumble down the street. “I never knew. I always thought it was just me.”

    “Yeah, well, it turns out it was, but not the way you thought.” Luke shook his head. “Sorry, cuz.”

    Jericho took a deep breath, then let it out again. “Right. Once I join Force Majeure, they can all kiss my ass. I’ll be part of the biggest goddamn government-affiliated team out there. Let’s see ’em ignore me then.” Pausing, he shot Bobbi an apologetic glance. “Sorry. I meant ‘us’.”

    She nodded in acknowledgment, a small smile curving her lips. “Works for me. I knew I was going to be meeting superheroes when I went to Utopia City, but I sure as hell didn’t think it was going to be on the train.”

    Luke chuckled. “Miz Bobbi, would you be surprised to learn that Jericho and you aren’t the only powered folks on this train? Because I know for a fact you’re not.”

    Jericho’s head came up as he realized the likelihood of what Luke was saying. “How do you know that? I’m not saying you’re wrong. Jeez, I wonder how many other Enabled are on here?”

    Bobbi shrugged. “I wouldn’t worry about it. I’d say they’re all doing exactly what we’re doing. Keeping their heads down and not making a song and dance about it.” She looked curiously at Luke. “You know something we’ve missed, don’t you?”

    “Maybe.” Luke nodded toward the far end of the passenger car. “There’s a couple of them that’s been sitting at the other end of the car for the last ten minutes. They just got up.” Despite the privacy bubble, he lowered his voice a little.

    Curious, Jericho sat up in his seat, craning his neck to look over the heads of the other passengers. At the same time, Bobbi twisted around in her seat. Jericho saw the flash of color moving down the aisle a moment before she gasped in surprise. “Huh,” she said. “They’re in costume.”

    “It sure looks like it,” Luke confirmed. “J, you’re the superhero here. You got any idea who they are?”

    As much as he would’ve liked to say ‘yes’, Jericho had to shake his head. “No.” He hesitated briefly. “But the one in front looks kinda familiar.”

    The ‘one in front’ was a thirty-something African American woman wearing subdued colors, with some sort of bird in silhouette on her chest logo and a visor that looked like an eagle’s beak. She also looked fit as hell, though she was favoring her right leg very slightly. A discreetly contoured knee brace explained why; leg injuries were an occupational hazard among Enabled, especially the ones who were into roof-running. Fortunately, it looked as though she was a prodigy, which meant the injury would be healed up in a matter of days. That was one of the perks of that particular powerset.

    Her companion was in his early twenties, sporting an almost garish costume of bright primary colors. As he moved down the aisle with nearly every person watching, he summoned glowing balls out of nowhere and began to juggle them; as far as Jericho could tell, they weren’t following the laws of physics.

    While Jericho had never seen either Enabled before, he couldn’t help but notice the Force Majeure patch on their costumes. The woman’s patch included color-coded dots which he’d read indicated rank within the organization, though he didn’t know enough to interpret them.

    When they got closer, Jericho noted that the woman was pulling a wheeled suitcase and the young man had a backpack on. Before he could comment on this, Luke reached across and switched off the privacy bubble. “Hey, ’scuse me,” he said to the costumed woman as the pair reached their table. “Y’all guardin’ th’ train, or is there somethin’ else goin’ on?”

    The woman stopped and turned toward him. When she spoke, her voice was clipped and precise, a whole world away from Luke’s down-home accent. “Sir, there’s no problem. We’re just taking the train, the same as you.” Evidently done with the conversation, she hit the button to open the doors into the next car.

    However, her juggling teammate opted to put his oar in. “Yeah, we’re transferring to the Seattle office. The maglev’s free for Force Majeure members so hey, it’s a no-brainer.” He somehow made two of the balls disappear but continued to juggle the other two with his left hand as he reached out with his right. “Hi, pleased to meet you. I’m Stage Act, and my boss here’s Nighthawk. How you doing, sir?”

    “I’m doin’ right fine.” Luke shook his hand. “Ya know, you’re th’ first real superhero I ever got ta shake th’ hand of. It’s an honor.” Jericho privately decided that at some point he’d get Luke but good. First real superhero, my ass.

    “That’s cool,” Stage Act said cheerfully. “It’s good to meet the public. You get a chance to go on my web page, gimme a like, okay? Have a nice day, sir.” With a friendly nod to Jericho and Bobbi, he moved on, following the scowling Nighthawk through to the next passenger car.
     
  5. Threadmarks: Chapter Fourteen: Utopia
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    14
    Utopia

    Luke fell back into his seat with an outrush of breath that turned into a chuckle. “Well, that right there was pretty damn cool. Though I had a notion for a second there that Nighthawk was fixing to haul off and whup my ass but good when I started talking to them.”

    Bobbi flicked the switch for the privacy bubble. “The whole thing was an act.” She sounded quite pleased with herself.

    Jericho and Luke both stared at her. “Say that again?” Jericho asked, not sure if he’d heard right.

    She grinned at them. “She was putting it on. I’d say she’s keeping up her image. Pretending to be hard-bitten, rough, tough. Stage Act was amused as hell at playing the naïve youngster, too. I’d say it’s a routine they have, to make people underestimate them.”

    Luke’s eyebrows tracked up toward his hairline. “Well, butter my butt an’ call me a biscuit. They totally took me in.”

    Bobbi nodded. “That’s almost certainly deliberate. They’ve probably been teaming up for a while now, if they’re getting transferred together. I’m guessing it’s a regular routine with them.” She gave Luke a perceptive stare. “Mind you, it’s not unlike the act you’ve been putting on for me. Or were you putting on an act for them?

    Jericho chuckled at the chagrined expression on Luke’s face. “She’s got you there. You want to tell her about it, or should I?”

    Luke waved him off. “I’ll do it. See, Miz Bobbi, I growed up talkin’ like this ’cause that’s how folks around me talked. But—” He stopped as she held up her gloved hand.

    “But talking like that doesn’t get you into a well-paying job,” she filled in. “So you learned to speak more correctly, and you talk like that when the situation requires it. Style switching isn’t exactly an uncommon thing.” She gave him an encouraging smile. “The only thing I’m wondering about is why you switched back to talk to the heroes.”

    Style switching. Huh. Jericho hadn’t even known that sort of thing had a name.

    “Oh, that’s easy,” Luke said with an answering grin. “I did that because I wanted them to see me as someone to forget as soon as they walked away. Folks like me don’t draw attention from the authorities if we can possibly help it.”

    “I see.” Bobbi’s mouth quirked. “I was ready to be upset at you, but I see the logic in what you were doing. It’s nice that you went to that much effort to make a good impression on me, but it’s fine. Impression’s been made. Feel free to talk whichever way you’re most comfortable doing.” She rubbed her lips thoughtfully. “But on another topic altogether, that just gave me an idea.”

    “Is this a bad idea or a good idea?” asked Jericho pragmatically. “Or is it one of those ideas that everyone knows is a bad move, but we go ahead with it anyway?”

    “Good idea, I think,” Bobbi said. “I’ve read up on Utopia City. Apparently there’s cheap accommodation there, aimed mainly at visiting Enabled. I was going to be renting a place on my own, but why don’t we share a place and split the cost instead?”

    “Y’know, that there ain’t such a bad idea.” Luke gave Bobbi an approving nod. “Me an’ Jericho was prob’ly gonna go halves in whatever we found, but goin’ thirds is even better.”

    “Sounds legit to me,” Jericho agreed. “Thirds it is.” He retrieved his water bottle from Bobbi and unscrewed the cap to take a drink.

    Bobbi leaned back in her seat; the most relaxed Jericho had seen her yet. “Awesome. So how long you guys going to be staying in town, anyway?”

    Jericho was about to answer when the yellow lights started flashing again. He glanced at the privacy bubble switch; sure enough, the light had gone out. At the same time, the PA system cut in again.

    “Attention, all passengers. Attention, all passengers. This train will be passing through Kansas City in six minutes. All passengers stopping in Kansas City, please move to Cars Five through Six. All passengers for the Kansas City to Wichita train, please move to Cars Seven through Eight. All passengers for the Kansas City to Omaha train, please move to Cars Nine through Ten. All passengers for the Kansas City to Utopia City train, please remain in this car. Do not forget your luggage …”

    “Thank fuck,” muttered Luke, flopping back against his seat. “We been gettin’ up an’ walkin’ jes’ to stay on the damn train the whole friggin’ trip.”

    “Don’t I just know it,” Bobbi said, sounding unamused. “I’ve been doing a lot of walking too.”

    “From New York to LA, huh?” Jericho said with a wry grin.

    “Oh, you’ve seen that asshole too?” Bobbi rolled her eyes. “I don’t even know why people think it’s funny. I swear, I could keep fit just by riding the maglev every day.”

    “Sounds like they’re missin’ a trick,” Luke suggested. “Offer low-price rides through high-traffic areas so’s folks gotta walk a lot more or git left behind.”

    “Hmm,” Bobbi mused. “That could actually work.”

    Jericho looked up at the digital sign. It now read ‘UTOPIA CITY 19:56’. After a moment of thought, he frowned. Wait a minute. If it’s twenty minutes to Utopia City, then … Taking out his phone, he nudged the power button to wake it up long enough to check the time. A few seconds later, he nodded as he found his suspicion confirmed. Allowing for differences between his phone and the station clock, they’d be pulling into Utopia City precisely two and a half hours following their departure from Savannah, as noted by the kiosk back in the transit station. He was pretty sure the time zone change gave them back an hour, so they’d be hitting Utopia City at almost exactly half after six. I wonder how they manage to time the stations so precisely. It’s not like the cities are a set distance apart … wait.

    A moment later, he had it, and he facepalmed hard enough to get both Luke and Bobbi looking at him. “Goddamn it, I’m a dumbass,” he groaned.

    Luke grinned at him. “Not that I’m arguin’, cuz, but what exactly are you referrin’ to in this specific instance?”

    “The speed of the train.” Jericho kept his voice down. Not that anyone could overhear him past the ongoing announcement, but there was no sense in not being careful. “I just figured out why we kept speeding up and slowing down between stations.”

    “We were?” Bobbi looked at him blankly. “I hadn’t really noticed.”

    “I reckoned we mighta been goin’ faster some times than others, but it weren’t somethin’ that I was thinkin’ that hard about,” Luke said. “So why were we changin’ speeds?”

    “So we’d hit the next station dead on time,” Jericho said. “I’m guessing they mark it by the quarter hour. The stations are at least a hundred miles apart, so on average we’re doing four hundred. Sometimes a bit more, sometimes a little less. They can probably go a lot faster than they’ve showed so far, but because the trains never lose time stopping, four hundred’s fast enough. Anyway, the way they’re timing it, we’re always gonna hit the next station on the hour, quarter hour or half hour. This means that with the right computer system overseeing the whole network, working out the connections for every city would be a piece of cake.”

    “Well, dang.” Luke looked at him admiringly. “I take back the ‘dumbass’ thing. That there’s a mighty slick bit of figurin’.”

    Jericho shrugged. “It was really bothering me, that’s all. I knew it was happening, but it took me ’til just now to work out why.”

    He leaned against the window as the train blazed on through Kansas City. In fifteen minutes, when he got off the maglev, he was going to be faced with some crucial choices. The first was a big one: when Stephen inevitably called him, what was he going to say? There were several options, which boiled down to: pretending he didn’t know about his boyfriend’s infidelity, letting him know but keeping him on, or dumping him over the phone. He liked to think he wasn’t the sort of asshat who would pull the latter stunt, but neither of the other two appealed either.

    The trouble was, giving Stephen a pass on his infidelity would almost certainly lead to more of the same. Once Stephen came to the conclusion that Luke hadn’t told Jericho, he’d probably decide he had a clear run to keep cheating. But even that knowledge didn’t—couldn’t—sway Jericho from his path. Going back to Savannah might get Stephen back onto the straight and narrow, but it would invalidate the entire reason that he’d come to Utopia City in the first place. And that had to take priority.

    Of course, as soon as he identified his goal, doubts began to spring up once more. Do I really have the chops to be a member of something this big? They’d accepted his application for an interview, but that didn’t mean he’d be taken on. How many people show up, only to go away disappointed? Doubts began to worm their way through his certainty. The closer he came to Utopia City, the harder it became for him to believe that he really was prepared for the interview.

    Bobbi cleared her throat. “Hey, Jericho.”

    He turned to face her. “What’s up?” Part of him was glad that he’d been distracted from his self-doubts, but another part wanted to keep digging deeper.

    “You’ll make it.” Her voice conveyed nothing but sincerity. “I promise you. You’ll be great. They’ll love you.”

    How’d she—oh. Right. He wanted to believe her, but there was also the knowledge that she could tell how he was feeling and wanted to cheer him up for her own reasons. Self-preservation, huh? Still, her encouraging words had an effect. Even as he wondered about her motives, he still felt better about things. “Thanks. I mean it. You know, you’re about the only one who’s bothered to say something nice about this?”

    The mock glare she sent Luke was almost worth the aggravation. “Luke, seriously? Your own cousin, and you can’t support him in something like this? I’m disappointed in you.”

    Jericho had to chuckle at the look on Luke’s face. His cousin clearly wanted to defend himself, but at the same time he didn’t want to argue with Bobbi.

    The chuckle didn’t help matters any. Luke gave him a betrayed look before turning back to their traveling companion. “Bobbi, ma’am, I never said he cain’t git in. I jes’ asked if he was certain-sho’ he could pull it off once he’s one of ’em.”

    Bobbi shook her head in exasperation. “Come on, Luke. You realize he was probably asking himself the same question? Then you, his friend, his cousin, turn around and make him think you’re doubting him? How do you think that made him feel?”

    “Ah. Shee-it. Sorry, cuz. Didn’t mean to do that to you.” Luke’s face reflected the dismay in his voice. “I reckon you’ll show ’em all once ya git there.”

    There was a reasonable chance, Jericho decided, that his cousin was only saying it to make him feel good. He chose to accept it at face value anyway. “Thanks, Luke. I appreciate it.”

    “See? Much better.” Bobbi beamed at them both. “So how long are you guys staying in Utopia City, anyway?”

    Jericho winced, remembering she’d asked that question just before the announcement went through. “I, uh, get my interview tomorrow morning. We’ll be heading back to Savannah once I find out one way or the other. I figure Wednesday at the latest. What about you?”

    Bobbi shrugged. “Well, like I said, I sent in an application, but I haven’t heard back yet. My powers need to be brought into line before I can get anything else done. I just hope that someone is willing to listen to me about Adam Power.” Her tone was optimistic, but Jericho saw the beginnings of a deeper worry in her eyes. Traveling to Utopia City like this was plainly a tremendous leap of faith for her.

    He spread his hands. “Look, tell you what. While I’m talking to them, I’ll put in a good word for you. Tell ’em what you’re fixing to do. They can’t have many emotion readers in Force Majeure. Maybe you really can jump the queue, after all.”

    Bobbi’s face cleared and her eyes sparkled with delight. “If you could do that, I think I might give you a big wet kiss.”

    Jericho spread his fingers on his chest and fluttered his eyelids like a stereotypical Southern belle. “Heavens to Betsy,” he drawled, overlaying his best effort at a falsetto with an exaggerated Georgia accent. “I’ll have y’all know I’m jes’ not that kind of girl.”

    Luke had been there and seen exactly this sort of behavior, so Jericho wasn’t surprised when he burst into laughter, pounding the table with his fist. Bobbi was more restrained, but she giggled nonetheless. Jericho leaned back in his seat, feeling pleased with himself. Yeah, I’ve still got it.

    “Attention, all passengers. Attention, all passengers. This train will be passing through Utopia City in six minutes. All passengers stopping in Utopia City, please remain in this car. All passengers for the Utopia City to Denver train, please move to Cars One through Seven. Do not forget your luggage …”

    Bobbi stifled her giggles as the announcement came through and the privacy bubble cut out. “One through seven?” She tilted her head to look up at the nearest digital display. “Oh, right. We’re number eight.”

    “Denver?” asked Luke. “What about th’ others? They usually say other names.”

    “Only four ways out of Utopia City,” Jericho said. “Omaha, Wichita, Kansas City, Denver.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “Omaha’s to the north, Wichita’s to the south and we just went through Kansas City. Colorado’s a ways west of here. The cars going to Wichita or Omaha separated off at the last stop. Means that the only traffic in Utopia City is either stopping or going straight through.”

    Bobbi nodded. “That should cut down on congestion a bit,” she agreed.

    “Mighty slick thinkin’,” Luke added, his voice admiring.

    “Well, the system was designed by Force Majeure.” Jericho was impressed all the same. The maglev network was fast, cheap, silent, efficient, non-polluting and reliable, and moved a staggering number of people around the country at near-airline speeds every day. It went right against the preconception that Enabled were only good for saving cats from trees or tossing cars around. We really can make a difference.

    Something in the distance caught his eye, and he squinted to try to make it out. While he couldn’t see Utopia City itself, the city being directly ahead of the train, he was able to see the nearby freeway. Over the top of the multi-lane interstate highway was a large sign that he only barely managed to read before the train was past it and the highway angled under the train toward the south. “Huh. God damn. We really are here.”

    “What-all ya mean by that, cuz?” Luke looked at him curiously.

    Jericho hooked his thumb over his shoulder. “Just saw a sign over the interstate. It said welcome to Utopia, and something about flight lanes.”

    “Well, that’s definitely different.” Bobbi’s intrigued look matched her tone.

    A moment later, Jericho chuckled.

    “What?” asked Luke.

    Trying not to smirk too widely, Jericho shook his head. “This’d be the perfect moment to say we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

    “But … we are.” Bobbi didn’t seem to get it.

    “Yeah,” Jericho said. “That’s the joke.”

    Ignoring Luke’s bark of laughter, Bobbi rolled her eyes. “Children,” she sighed. “I’m traveling with children.”



    - End of Part One -


    [​IMG]
     
  6. samgrimes

    samgrimes Getting out there.

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    Finally!

    I do have to wonder about building a city in the middle of nowhere, but... land was cheap?
     
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  7. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    There was already a city there before the explosion (Manhattan, Kansas) so all the roads were in place.

    They just rebuilt. Their way.
     
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  8. Threadmarks: Chapter Fifteen: New Arrivals
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Part Two

    Future Shock



    Welcome to Utopia, home of Force Majeure …
    - Utopia City advertising slogan

    … you have been warned.
    - a shadowy guy on a rooftop



    15
    New Arrivals

    Utopia City, Kansas
    Sunday, October 6, 2013
    6:32 PM Central Daylight Time

    "Attention, all passengers. Attention, all passengers. This train has now arrived in Utopia City. Please leave the car. Do not forget your luggage. Utopia Maglev Lines takes no responsibility for luggage left on the train. We hope you have enjoyed your trip. Attention, all passengers …”


    Jericho barely heard the announcement as he stared out the window, trying to take in the differences between the central hub of the maglev system and the Savannah station. In a phrase, there was no comparison. Whereas Savannah had only a single-level platform, here he was looking out at a secondary platform which would allow them to walk directly out of the upper level without needing to take the stairs. He’d previously thought the Savannah station to be impressive, with its logo-embossed concrete platform and automatic MagCard ticketing, but this blew all that out of the metaphorical water. Arched ceilings, more kiosks with touch-screen access, and what appeared to be automated luggage carts trundling across the gorgeously tiled floor under their own power; all competed for his attention. Absently, he noted that the latter were following people who were waiting to get on the train, but that aspect barely even registered with him.

    “Hey, cuz.” Luke’s voice caught his attention, and he looked around. The yellow lights were flashing again, and all the digital signs read ‘ARRIVAL’; in addition, the announcement was repeating for the third time. “We’re gittin’ off here, if ya forgot.” The last of the other passengers were just filing out through the doors, while Luke and Bobbi got their luggage down from the overhead bins. “Or was you fixin’ to stay on the train an’ head on back to Savannah?”

    “Oh, right. Yeah.” Jericho grinned sheepishly at Bobbi. “Coming in, I felt like a hick from the sticks, looking up at all them big ol’ buildings.” In his defense, some of the buildings had been seriously tall. He stood up and worked his way out into the aisle. “Savannah just plain doesn’t have anything like this.”

    She chuckled, dropping her suitcase to the floor and expertly extending the handle. “Trust me, we’ve had the maglev for a few years in Indianapolis, but our station still isn’t nearly as big as this one.” She looked around at the otherwise empty carriage. “I think we’re it. Maybe we should get off before they decide to charge us for the return trip.”

    “Yeah, let’s do that thing,” said Luke; with his backpack still in his hand, he moved past the other two and led the way out through the exit doors onto the platform. Bobbi followed along, towing her wheeled suitcase, while Jericho slung his overnight bag over his shoulder and brought up the rear.

    Once they were off the train, he could see that the station was even more impressive than he’d previously thought, with huge skylights letting diffuse sunlight through to light up the concourse. This set off the brilliantly colored tiled mosaic beneath their feet, making him feel as though he was standing in the middle of an art display.

    About thirty feet in front of them, past the crowd of people waiting to get on the train and on the other side of a wrought-metal barrier, there was another passenger car, also presumably letting off passengers. Beyond that one, Jericho thought he could see yet another.

    “Please stand away from the edge of the platform.” By now, Jericho was certain they used the same synthesized voice for all their announcements. “This passenger car is being taken out of service for maintenance purposes. The next passenger car is due to arrive in thirty seconds.”

    Somewhat familiar with this dance by now, Jericho turned to look at the maglev car, noting that the doors were now firmly shut. It began to move, though not with the startling rapidity the one back in Savannah had exhibited. Sliding soundlessly along the track, it vanished into another part of the station.

    “Maintenance?” asked Luke. “Didn’t hardly look used, even.”

    “I think it’s more a matter of making sure nothing gets close to failing,” Jericho said. “I looked it up. Every time a car with a certain number of hours comes through a major hub like this one, it goes through maintenance. And if the computer I suspect they got running the show is powerful enough, they’d be able to ensure that every single one gets routed through a main hub before its hours are up.”

    “Makes sense,” Bobbi agreed. “Luke and I do the same with our bikes. Still, that’s a lot of maintenance work. I hope whoever’s in charge of it doesn’t slack off.” She knelt beside her bag and unzipped the main compartment, then pulled out a small handbag. Slinging the strap over her shoulder, she closed her suitcase again and stood up.

    “Please stand away from the edge of the platform. The next passenger car is due to arrive in fifteen seconds.”

    UML, Jericho decided, had all their ducks in a row. When it was possible to predict the arrival of a carriage down to the second, that showed a serious amount of organization and forethought. Even as he formed the thought, a new maglev car slid equally soundlessly into view. Bingo.

    As the doors opened and people started crowding on board, Bobbi turned away from the train. “This way, I think.” She pointed off to the left at a row of the same airlock-style scanners that he’d seen in Savannah, through which the last of the passengers from their carriage were moving. Like the previous ones, each had a UML card-reader next to it. Swipe on in Savannah, swipe off here. Unlike the Savannah station, this platform sported eight scan-locks, each with a digital sign above it. Half of these signs read ‘DEPARTURES’ and the other half ‘ARRIVALS’; he guessed that his MagCard would only work on the ‘Arrivals’ side of things.

    Bobbi pulled her MagCard from her handbag and stepped forward, heading for one of the ‘Arrivals’ scan-locks. “Let’s get down to ground level. We should be able to hail a cab from there.” That sounded almost disappointingly mundane, but Jericho firmly reminded himself that not everything about Utopia City was going to be weirdly futuristic. Pulling out his own MagCard, he swiped it over the sensor on the scan-lock he’d chosen, which opened for him with an agreeable beep and a swish of rubber on aluminum. Luke followed him in, while Bobbi took the next one over. The far doors opened the instant the near ones had closed behind him, which made sense; they were getting off the train, after all, not on. As they left the scan-lock, Luke shrugged his backpack into place.

    Beyond the scan-locks, there were more kiosks as well as an almost bewildering array of stairs, escalators, and even an elevator. Jericho was interested to note that the stairs and escalators led upward as well as down, as he’d thought the skylight indicated that they were on the top level of the building. This puzzle was resolved with a quick glance at the signage, which indicated that they were indeed on Level Three. Going down would get them to Level Two or Level One, while going up would take them to what was marked as a monorail station.

    “Wait, they’ve got a monorail?” That was Luke, apparently reading along with him.

    Jericho rolled his eyes and pointed back at the maglev. “We literally just came in on the biggest monorail in the country. Pretty sure whatever they’ve got here isn’t going to stack up to that.” He turned to Bobbi. “Are we taking the monorail?”

    “Nah,” she said. “Probably won’t let us off exactly where we need to go. Like I said, we’ll get down to ground level, work out where we’re going, then decide on how to hail a cab to get there.” She headed for the escalators and Jericho followed her lead, while Luke picked the stairs. The overall drop to Level Two was only about nine or ten feet, less than he’d expected. If he’d been in costume, he would’ve considered using his slow-fall to glide down without touching a step. As it was, he leaned against the rail and looked around with interest.

    “The hell’s this?” Luke, jogging down the steps, had caught up with them. “Cuz, you too good for stairs now?”

    Jericho flipped him off, then looked around at Level Two as they descended into it. There were more people here. Some, trailed by the automated carts, were moving toward the second stage of down-escalators and stairs, separated from the first stage by about thirty feet. Others were taking stairs and escalators upward, presumably bound for the monorail station. Off to the left, through the glass sliding doors of another row of scan-locks, he could see the replacement maglev car, and the passengers who were even now boarding it. Flanking the scan-locks were the ubiquitous ticket kiosks.

    Softly lit ceiling panels here and there glowed with brilliant colors, arranged into oddly familiar patterns. He puzzled over it for a moment, then figured out that some of the tiled areas from above were acting as secondary skylights to illuminate this level as well. Looking around, he realized that Bobbi and Luke were moving on toward the next set of escalators, so he hurried to catch up. More specifically, Bobbi had chosen the escalators while Luke headed once more for the stairs. Jericho stuck close to Bobbi, stepping on behind her. This one dropped much farther than the previous one, going down at least thirty feet.

    “Friggin’ escalators again,” jibed Luke as he jogged downward to keep pace with Jericho and Bobbi. “Never knew you was this lazy, cuz.”

    “Hey, if it’s here, I’ll make use of it,” Jericho shot back defensively. “Just because you were nine before you ever saw an escalator …”

    Luke rolled his eyes. “Weren’t my fault. That was all up to Great-grandpappy Frank gittin’ pissy with my daddy for gittin’ hitched with Mama, way back when.”

    “Whoa, wait a second.” Bobbi half-turned toward them and made a ‘time-out’ gesture. “If you’re going to talk family history, I’m going to need the Cliff notes.”

    Jericho cleared his throat. “Okay, stop me if this gets boring. Just after the Second World War, our great-granddaddy Frank started a news distribution service. He did pretty good at it.” He shrugged. “Our family’s pretty well-off, for the most part. He only died about twenty years ago, but up until then he basically had total control of the company. When my daddy and Uncle Leroy—Luke’s daddy—turned twenty-one, they were gonna get shares in the company. Not enough to control anything, but enough to get dividends from.”

    “Wait a minute.” With a frown, Bobbi tilted her head. “Where are your grandparents in all this? Your father’s folks, I mean.”

    “Yeah, that’s part of it,” Jericho acknowledged. “They’ve both passed. Papaw Joe got Mamaw Penny pregnant with twins just before he got killed in Vietnam. Great-granddaddy Frank and Great-gran’maw Kate took her in and helped raise ’em. Mamaw Penny and Great-gran’maw Kate died in a car accident back in the nineties. But anyway, my daddy got born two minutes before Uncle Leroy, so he was the oldest and got all the attention. So, Uncle Leroy kinda acted out a bit. Got expelled from the private school great-granddaddy sent him to, so he ended up in public schooling. Found a girl he liked and fooled around with her a bit too much, and got her pregnant during spring break. So, they took a bus trip across to Vegas and got married in one of those instant wedding chapels.” He shrugged. “Guess it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

    “But why go all the way to Vegas?” Bobbi frowned, looking confused. “Why not just hit up a civil registry in Savannah, or wherever?”

    “Because not a one of ’em woulda let a white boy git hitched to a black girl,” Luke stated bluntly. “They woulda flat-out refused, an’ the ones in Savannah woulda been on th’ phone ta great-grandpappy in about thirty seconds. Followed up by Mama bein’ arrested on whatever charges he could make up. Pa was right smart about that, anyways. He made sure Mama weren’t anywhere great-grandpappy could find her an’ remove th’ problem. When Pa told him Mama was knocked up and he wasn’t gonna walk away from her, great-grandpappy had him beat up an’ kicked out. Cut ’em off cold. They hadda move halfway across th’ state just so’s Pa could git hisself a job without bein’ fired th’ day after as a favor to great-grandpappy.”

    “But that’s not fair!” protested Bobbi. “You don’t cut people off in that situation. You help them out.” She looked from Luke to Jericho and back again in silent appeal.

    Luke gave her a level stare in return. “You know that, an’ I know that. But that right there was Georgia back then for ya. Great-grandpappy, jes’ like every other rich white asshole, didn’t want his grandkid marryin’ no black girl. Lot of folks still think that way, even now.”

    From the look on Bobbi’s face, Jericho suspected that Bobbi was starting to realize how he’d felt when she filled him and Luke in on how the newspapers shaped the narrative according to their political views. “My God,” she said, shaking her head. “And here I thought the year was twenty thirteen, not nineteen thirteen. Or eighteen thirteen.”

    That got her a derisive snort from Luke. “Racist assholes never go away. They jes’ learn ta hide better. So anyway, he tol’ everyone else not to he’p us out. My li’l sis Serena come along when I was about four. We done it tough for a few years after that ’til Uncle Beau, that’s Jericho’s daddy, inherited the business. He’d grown up with great-grandpappy pourin’ shit in his ears, but then he went off ta learn business stuff at some fancy college in New York.”

    “That’s where he met Mama,” Jericho supplied. “She was studying law. He always told me that meeting her was about the best thing that ever happened to him. Between her and the friends he made there, he got his eyes opened. Over the next few years, he slipped money under the table to Uncle Leroy and his family whenever he could. The moment the controlling interest in the company was signed over to him, he invited them to move back to Savannah. That’s when Luke and I met for the first time.”

    “Gave us the chance ta git back on our feet, sho’nuff.” Luke gestured with his hands in lieu of shrugging. “I mean, we ain’t rich, but we’re doin’ jes’ fine anyways.”

    Bobbi shook her head again. “I thought I’d heard everything. That’s just crazy.”

    “Not arguing,” Jericho said. “But that’s the way it was.”

    “He was a different kinda man from a different kinda time,” Luke supplied.

    Jericho snorted. “What Luke’s trying to be polite about is that Great-granddaddy Frank was a goddamn racist and a bigot and a few other words I’m not about to say in front of a lady. Anyway, that’s the lowdown on our family history.” He stepped off the escalator behind Bobbi and looked around.

    The ground floor of the station was even more impressive than the upper levels. While it lacked the elaborate skylights, there were even more kiosks, as well as shops and cafés scattered here and there. The entire building looked remarkably open plan, with no sign of any way to close it for the night. Then again, does it even close?

    “So, uh, is it just me, or does this whole place seem totally automated?” said Bobbi in what Jericho suspected was an attempt to change the subject to something less awkward. “I mean, have you guys even seen someone wearing UML colors yet? Because I haven’t.”

    “Huh,” Luke said, looking around. “Now that ya mention it, it is kinda spooky.”

    “Yeah,” Jericho agreed. “Even the folks running the shops have their own work uniforms. I guess they really are that good, here.”

    “Which raises the problem of where we’d get information from.” Bobbi looked around, her forehead creasing in a frown.

    The voice came from behind them. “Need a hand?”
     
  9. Threadmarks: Chapter Sixteen: Friendly Face
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    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Friendly Face

    Along with the others, Jericho turned to see a guy in his late teens or early twenties leaning casually against a pillar, hands in his jacket pockets. Maybe as tall as Luke, the guy had bulk that wasn’t just due to the light jacket he was wearing. “Sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing. New in town? You look lost.”

    “Mebbe.” Luke was automatically suspicious. Jericho didn’t blame him. If this scenario happened to his cousin back in Savannah, there was usually a vicious beating waiting around the corner. “Lemme guess. You got somethin’ ta sell us, an’ we won’t get us a better price anyplace else. Fuck off. We ain’t interested.”

    The stranger straightened up from the pillar, revealing himself to be just a little taller than Luke, though not quite as broad in the shoulders. Now that Jericho was looking more closely, he registered that the guy had attractively tousled black hair and steady brown eyes. His features were strong and regular, with a firm jaw. “I’m not looking to sell you anything,” he said in a tone that indicated his utter lack of care factor as to whether they believed him or not. “But do I know my way around the city and I can give you a hand to figure out where you need to go, and how to get there.”

    “Really.” Bobbi eyed him cynically. “And what’s in it for you, exactly?” Her gaze was nowhere near as hostile as Luke’s, but she wasn’t taking the guy at face value either. Jericho wondered what her power was reading. Was he trying to scam them somehow?

    The guy shrugged. “Spot me a meal?” He spread his hands, palm up, in the universal ‘I bear no weapons’ sign. “Just trying to do my good deed for the day.” One corner of his mouth quirked up in a half-grin which Jericho found oddly appealing. “We do things slightly differently here in Utopia, and it takes newcomers a little time to get up to speed. I can give you a head start, if you want.”

    Personally, Jericho wanted to trust the guy, though he wasn’t sure if this was because he actually thought he was trustworthy, or because he found him attractive. Goddamn it, Stephen! If you hadn’t screwed around on me, I wouldn’t even be noticing all these good-looking guys! Bobbi wasn’t chasing the guy away, so maybe he wasn’t planning to rip them off at the first opportunity? He decided to keep quiet and let Bobbi take the lead for the moment, as she seemed to know what she was doing.

    “Probably not a bad idea, at that,” she admitted. “I’ve done some reading about Utopia City, but there’s a lot they don’t mention.” She tilted her head in thought, then indicated the cafés within view. All had customers—Jericho couldn’t tell if they were incoming or outgoing passengers—but some were more densely populated than others. “Pick your poison. But no seven-course meals.”

    The grin he flashed at her made Jericho like him even more, though paradoxically it served to still the flutter in his chest when he looked at the guy. Pouring on the charm as he was didn’t turn Jericho off him, but it made him more approachable and less standoffish, and thus less of a magnet for Jericho’s libido. “Thanks. I’m Thomas, by the way. Where are you in from?” Turning, he started toward a nearby fast-food stand.

    “Bobbi. That’s Jericho and Luke.” For all that he had longer legs, she matched him stride for stride, leaving Luke and Jericho to catch up in their wake. “I’m from Indiana. They’re from Georgia.”

    “Huh.” If Thomas was offended at being fobbed off with a generalization, he didn’t show it. “That’s cool. Folks come into Utopia from all over. Some of them find out they can’t cut it and move on. Most of us stay.” There seemed to be an edge of bitterness to his tone. “Here for work or tourism?”

    “A bit of both,” Jericho said. Thomas wasn’t from the South, that was for sure. The way he was clipping his syllables, Jericho figured him to be from someplace in the northeast. “So, not to be rude or anything, but what’s your deal? You hang around in the maglev station and talk to strangers for shits and giggles, or is this how you eat?”

    “Pfft, hardly.” Thomas sounded very sure of himself. Arriving at the counter, he quickly ordered two wraps and a bottle of orange juice. The resulting price made Jericho’s eyebrows raise slightly; not from how expensive it was, but how cheap. Given that this was a concession stand, he would’ve expected slightly higher prices than normal, but the numbers he was looking at were about two-thirds what they should be. “I like to people-watch. Meet folks from all over. And if I can get the occasional freebie from someone I help, all the better.”

    On impulse, Jericho got out his wallet. “I’ll pay for half of that,” he told the guy behind the counter. “What do you take? I got Amex, debit card, cash …”

    “Just MagCard, buddy.” The attendant gestured to where a reader with the UML logo was set into the countertop. “Swipe your cards and we’re done.”

    “That’s convenient,” Bobbi observed as she swiped her card across the reader. “Does everything use the MagCard in Utopia City?”

    “Pretty much,” said the attendant. “It’s backed by Force Majeure, so it’s as secure as it gets.”

    “Huh. I guess that’s pretty secure,” Jericho noted with a grin. He swiped his card as well. “That’s it?”

    “That’s it.” The attendant put the purchase, contained in a paper bag, up on the counter. Bobbi took it.

    “Uh, wait,” Jericho said belatedly. “I forgot to add a tip.” He held up his card, preparatory to swiping it a second time. “How much is good here?”

    “Oh, we don’t tip here in Utopia,” Thomas said. “It’s not really a thing.” His voice was casual despite the oddity of what he was saying, as if he were talking about what the weather was going to be like, but confidently predicting a rain of frogs.

    “Wait, what?” Luke stared at him disbelievingly. “How’s that even work?”

    “We don’t need it,” the attendant confirmed. “Minimum wage here in Utopia’s a flat twenty bucks an hour, and that’s before overtime, holiday pay and so on. We’re required to take a certain number of paid vacations a year, and we’ve even got automatic health coverage. Takes a lot of the stress out of life, let me tell you.” He gave Jericho a nod and a smile. “Thanks for offering, though. Have a nice day.”

    “You too,” Jericho replied automatically as they moved away from the food stand. Most of the attendant’s explanation had gone over his head; the part that had stuck with him, and he had the most trouble with, was the concept of not tipping people for service. Thomas said things were different here. He’s not wrong.

    Bobbi handed the bag over to Thomas. “Here’s your food, and it’s totally not a tip,” she told him with a grin. “So, where do we go from here?”

    “Just a minute,” Luke interjected. “If folks do everythin’ with th’ MagCard hereabouts, what happens if some poor asshole gits to Utopia City an’ don’t got no money in the account the damn MagCard feeds off’ve?”

    “He walks to a terminal and transfers some over from another account,” Thomas explained. He pointed out a few of the electronic kiosks, spaced around the perimeter of the station. “Only takes a minute.”

    “But those are ticket vending machines,” Jericho objected. “I used one back in Savannah. It didn’t give me any banking options.”

    Thomas chuckled for a moment. “Sorry. Not laughing at you. It’s just that this is a common misconception. They really should put out better literature on the subject. Come on, I’ll show you.” He led the way to the nearest kiosk. “See, these are multi-function, but the ones in other cities are locked into selling MagCards and dispensing tickets.” Reaching out, he tapped the screen. Immediately, it came to life, showing a list of options. The first was familiar; the rest, less so.

    PURCHASE TICKET
    MAPS
    MONEY TRANSFER
    LUGGAGE CARTS
    OTHER

    “We don’t want ‘other’,” he said. “That’s for things like complaining about the maglev service, contacting Force Majeure, calling the cops, stuff like that.” He glanced at Luke. “Did you need to transfer money, or were you just asking?”

    “I was jes’ askin’,” Luke said hurriedly. “So, these things act like teller machines an’ all?”

    “Well, they are computers and this is the twenty-first century, so yes,” Thomas confirmed. “So, I’m guessing you’re still figuring out where you’re going from here?”

    Bobbi gave him a penetrating look. “Yeah. We’re looking for short-stay accommodation. What’s good? And by that, I mean cheap rooms and good service.” Good service that got by without tips. This was something Jericho would have to see to believe.

    “Oh, that’s easy.” Thomas gave her one of those grins he was so good at, then tapped MAPS. The screen shifted and changed … and Jericho caught his breath. Beside him, he heard Luke mutter something under his breath that sounded like “Fuck me.”

    Luke’s exclamation was unsurprising, given that the image on the screen had gone from flat monochrome to three-dimensional full color in the blink of an eye. Jericho had seen footage of active holograms before, but this was the first time he’d experienced one. From what he could see, this specific hologram was a map of Utopia City; or rather, a very small part of it. Buildings, standing out in relief, skated in circles as Thomas adjusted the alignment, apparently by moving his fingers over the screen itself. The young man tapped his fingernail on—through—a complex of interlocked white blocks. “This is the Oaklands. From what I hear, it’s pretty good.”

    “Where-all’s that from here?” asked Luke practically. “Can we walk, or ain’t that a good idea?”

    “Not really,” Thomas said, using a pinching motion on the screen to zoom out. “We’re not far from the Spire. This is the station, there’s the Spire. East-west maglev line runs right past it, in fact.”

    Jericho figured that the fine silver thread that had just moved into the picture was the maglev rail. Backtracking it to where the other three lines ran into the station wasn’t difficult. The cloverleaf pattern formed by the rails around the station was a little harder to pick out, but it was visible if he squinted. His eyes moved over to the huge round building that dominated the image, extending upward as far as the screen resolution allowed. He didn’t know much about Utopia City, but everyone had seen pictures of the Spire.

    While the entire Utopia City skyline looked like something that might’ve been imagined in the 1950s as typical for 2013, the Spire was a step beyond. Just over a mile and a half tall, the almost alien proportions made it look like something from a hundred years hence. More than that, the Spire was the geographical and political center of Utopia City. Not only was it where the business of running the city took place, but it was also where Force Majeure made their headquarters within the city. That’s where I’ll be going for my interview.

    He looked for the complex that Thomas had indicated before, and couldn’t find it. “So, where are we going to, again?” he asked. Utopia City, he decided, is way too goddamn big. Bigger than Savannah, that’s for sure.

    “Here.” Thomas double-tapped the screen, and it zoomed in. The buildings showed up again, and Jericho noted that the guy had been right. If Jericho’s idea of the scale was anywhere near correct, it would be much too far to walk in a hurry.

    A blue squiggle between nearby buildings caught his eye. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing at it.

    “Oh, that’s one of the canals,” Thomas said. “There’s a network of them around the city to take care of water runoff, and to handle the Kansas River flow-through as well. This being Utopia, they keep it nice and decorative, because why not.”

    “Yeah, yeah, right.” Luke nodded. “So, how the hell do we hail a cab, anyways? I don’t see no phone around here, an’ I dunno what th’ number is.”

    “Come on. I got this.” From Thomas’ grin, Jericho got the distinct impression that he enjoyed being the guy in the know. Stepping around the kiosk and the pillar it was backed up to, the younger man led the way out through the archway into the open air beyond.

    “Well, come on,” Bobbi said, taking a fresh grip on her drag-bag. “He’s a smartass, but it doesn’t feel like he’s going to try and rip us off.” She moved off, following in Thomas’ wake. Jericho and Luke shared a glance, shrugged, and followed along. Rather than a downrush of air as they stepped beneath the archway, Jericho instead felt an illusory popping sensation. The air temperature rose by a few degrees while the scents changed as well, from air fresheners to ozone, dust and hot metal.

    “What the hell?” Luke stopped short. “That jes’ happen?” He looked back into the maglev station, as if considering turning around and going back to Savannah right then and there.

    “It happened,” Jericho assured him. “Figure it’s a weak force field to keep the cool air inside. Nice trick if you can pull it off.” He was quite impressed. Most of the force fields he’d seen on TV caused a certain degree of visual distortion, but this one hadn’t shown any sign of its presence at all.

    “Friggin’ cogs.” Luke shook his head. “They build this whole damn city?” He looked across the fifty feet or so of open pavement that lay between the station and the street, with a gesture that was apparently supposed to take in the rest of the city. On a second look, it wasn’t totally open. There was a row of yellow posts at about twenty-foot intervals, and beyond that a low brick wall edged the street.

    Jericho nodded, not even bothering to correct his word use this time. “That’s what I heard.” The buildings across the street certainly bore this out with their tall and graceful lines, as far from the stodgy steel and glass office buildings of popular culture as a modern house was from a mud hut. In the sky above he could see the same sort of moving dots as he’d seen on the commercial, though he still wasn’t exactly sure whether they were human or mechanical in nature. Aware that he was wasting time, he moved to join Bobbi and Thomas, with Luke close behind.

    They were standing next to one of the yellow posts. Close up, it looked about the same size and shape as a parking meter, albeit with a speaker on the side and a large green button placed prominently on top. As far as he could see, the posts were spaced at intervals along the front of the maglev station. Between each post and the street was a yellow rectangle painted on the concrete pavers, maybe ten feet wide and twenty long. Oddly enough, the entirety of the inside of the ‘parking space’ was covered over by a metal grille instead of concrete.

    “That s’posed to be a taxi stand?” asked Luke, gesturing at the yellow rectangle. His gesture and tone conveyed a certain amount of doubt, which Jericho could understand. If the cab was supposed to pull up on the yellow rectangle—and that didn’t exactly explain the presence of the grille—how was it intended to get past the wall? I’m missing something here …

    “Yup.” Thomas reached out to the post and held the button down.

    A feminine voice emanated from the speaker. “Please state number of passengers, how many pieces of luggage, and destination.”

    “Four passengers.” Thomas’s reply was crisp. “Three pieces of luggage. Destination is the Oaklands temporary accommodation complex.”

    “Thank you. A taxi has been dispatched. Your taxi will be arriving in forty-three seconds. Please stay clear of the marked area.”

    “Thank you.” Thomas released the button.

    As if to underscore the warning they’d been given, the yellow-painted rectangle pulsed oddly then faded to a deep red. Ignoring Luke’s startled exclamation, Jericho shaded his eyes and looked up and down the street. He couldn’t see anything that resembled a taxi; in fact, the only vehicles on the road looked like buses and heavy transport. And even those didn’t look like what he was used to. Or smell that way, for that matter. It came to him that he hadn’t smelled exhaust fumes since he’d gotten on the maglev, back in Savannah. Even now, his nose couldn’t pick any out, for all that he was in the middle of a bustling city.

    “Wait, four passengers?” Luke gave Thomas a hard look. “What makes ya think you’re ridin’ in our cab?”

    “Hey, I’ll pay my way.” Thomas flourished his own MagCard. “I don’t live all that far from the Oaklands and it’s cheaper sharing a cab with you guys. If you don’t mind, that is.”

    Jericho suppressed his initial reaction, waiting to see Bobbi’s view on the subject. While sharing the price of a cab was good for all concerned, it didn’t mean there wasn’t a deeper plan going on.

    “If you c’n afford a cab, why’d we just buy ya dinner?” Luke asked, ignoring the fact that he hadn’t actually contributed.

    “Because this way, I don’t have to pay for my food or the full price of a taxi ride home,” Thomas pointed out cheerfully. “I just saved you a bunch of aggravation figuring out where to go and how to get there, and all it’s costing you is the price of a meal, less one-fourth of a cab fare.” He spread his hands again. “Guys. I’m not ripping you off. Being totally legit here.”

    Bobbi nodded. “Luke, chill. He’s on the level.” She opened her mouth to say more but didn’t get the chance. With no more warning than a sudden down-blast of air, a large yellow thing dropped down out of the sky and landed neatly on the outlined rectangle. Jericho stared at the apparition; one second it hadn’t been there, and the next it was. He’d had his suspicions about what was flying around up there, but he hadn’t expected this.
     
  10. Threadmarks: Chapter Seventeen: Air Taxi
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    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Air Taxi

    It was vaguely car-shaped, but larger again by half in all dimensions. At the front, two large ducted fans spun in side-by-side mounts that let them swivel in any direction, taking up most of the space where the hood should have been. This made Jericho wonder in turn where the engine was. It couldn’t be at the back of the vehicle, given that from where he was standing, he could see at least one more ducted fan in the space where the trunk should be. The windshield was chevron-shaped, angling back from the centerline to merge into the sides of the vehicle. Short stabilizer fins protruded from the fuselage of the craft. In fact, the whole thing was thoroughly streamlined, not to mention futuristic as hell.

    “Well, shitfire an’ honey biscuits. They’ve actually got flyin’ cars.” Luke managed to sound incredulous and reverent at the same time.

    “Didn’t they have a documentary about flying cars in Utopia City, a couple-three years ago?” Jericho was sure he remembered seeing it on TV, but it had to have been at least five or six years ago, and a lot had happened in the meantime.

    “Yeah, they did,” Luke replied, not taking his eyes off the air taxi. “But I never reckoned they’d be anythin’ like this.”

    Thomas moved forward while Jericho and the others were still staring. He pulled at a remarkably mundane handle on the side of the vehicle, and a door hinged upward. Because, of course it does. Leaning nonchalantly against the side of the vehicle with an almost insufferably smug look on his face, he beckoned to them. “Well, come on,” he said. “It’s not going to bite.”

    Bobbi was the first to snap out of the spell. Moving forward with her drag-bag, she stopped and examined the interior of the flying car. Apparently satisfied by what she saw, she collapsed the handle of her luggage, hefted it, and climbed in.

    Deciding to trust that the vehicle did indeed have a working engine (after all, it had just landed), Jericho moved forward and climbed in after her. The interior wasn’t hugely spacious, but there were four comfortable looking seats at the back and another one in front of each of the two doors, facing inward. Each seat had armrests featuring MagCard readers as well as five-point restraint harnesses. In the middle of the cab, between the seats, was a cargo-netted area; Bobbi had already deposited her drag-bag into it. At the front of the passenger compartment was a solid partition, separating the driver’s seat from the rest of the cab. This was mainly taken up with a large flat-screen monitor, currently dark. Large windows had been installed in the roof, as well as each side and the rear of the cab.

    He picked the inward-facing seat on the right side of the cab and lowered himself into it. A small sticker on the partition caught his eye as he got himself settled. It portrayed a camera inside a red circle crossed by a line, with the text UTOPIA CITY CABS ARE CHALLENGER ACT COMPLIANT. Although he was conversant with the Challenger Act, he wasn’t certain how it applied to flying taxicabs, but it definitely sounded interesting.

    Luke clambered in after Jericho and dropped his backpack into the cargo net with the rest of the luggage. “Holy crap,” he said, taking the seat opposite Jericho’s. “This has gotta be a friggin’ limo. Thought we just called a cab?”

    A masculine voice crackled out of an intercom speaker right next to his ear, making him jump. “Sorry, buddy. Just a regular cab.”

    “Well, it could be a limo,” argued Luke as Thomas climbed in, still clutching the paper bag. “It’s big enough. Turn these seats so’s they face backward an’ you could fit another one in here.”

    “Hah, nope,” said the cab-driver’s disembodied voice. “They trialed that. Didn’t go well. Nearly everyone who rode that way got airsick. Something about traveling backward. So, the actual limos are just a bit longer with extra seats on the sides. Besides, we need to keep the screen clear.”

    “Oh, right.” Luke looked thoughtful as he inspected the screen. “Suppose that’s a point too.”

    “Yup,” agreed the driver. Okay, folks, you’re heading for the Oaklands, right? That’ll be … eleven bucks. Who’s paying?” The screen between Jericho and Luke came to life, displaying the price in large red digits.

    Bobbi cleared her throat and gave Thomas a significant look. “We’re sharing. Four ways. Right, guys?”

    “Sure thing,” Thomas agreed readily enough. He’d seated himself at the far end of the back seat to Bobbi, diagonally across from Jericho. Producing his MagCard as if it were a conjuring trick, he swiped it across the reader on his armrest. There was a beep from the screen, and a second line appeared under the displayed price: ‘$2.75 PAID’. “That’s me,” he announced.

    “Gimme a second,” Luke muttered. “I’m sittin’ on my goddamn wallet.” Squirming around in his seat, he managed to extract the recalcitrant item. Jericho and Bobbi had it easier, as they’d used their cards just before. One by one, they swiped their cards, each one eliciting a beep and an update in the amount paid. When Luke swiped, the running update vanished and the original price turned from red digits to green. As they did so, the door swung down and clicked into place.

    “Okay, is that it?” asked Jericho.

    “Not quite. Now you gotta belt up. Legal requirement.” The monitor screen changed to an animated cartoon graphic that showed how to fasten the five-point restraints. “FAA’d have my ass, otherwise.”

    “Ah, right.” Jericho fumbled with the belts, then figured it out and clicked them into place with the help of the screen graphic. Thomas already had his done up, while Bobbi had come in a close second. Luke sorted his out moments later. “Okay, I think we’re ready.”

    “Good. Let’s go.” At Jericho’s right elbow, a screen lit up, showing what appeared to be a view out through the windshield. Across the cab, another screen had activated for Luke. A bone-deep thrumming sound came from outside the cab, and Jericho felt G-forces trying to press him downward into the seat cushions. His first instinct was to use his powers to override the effect on himself, but he kept them in check as the total vertical acceleration was only around half a gee. The ground dropped away; within moments, he could turn his head to look down at the roof of the maglev station. A second or so later, the vertical acceleration eased up and the cab transitioned into forward flight, building to a total speed of fifty miles per hour. And then, as they moved out of the shadow of one of the skyscrapers, honey-gold sunlight filled the interior of the cab.

    He’d been aware of the gradual onset of twilight, but it came as a surprise to find himself in the sunlight once more. Leaning forward against his restraints, he looked out the back window toward where he thought the Spire was. Just for a moment, he was rewarded with an image of the towering edifice outlined by the westering sun. In the foreground, the maglev rail reflected the light into his eyes, describing a burning path into the heart of the sunset. And then it was gone again, as the cab went into the shadow of another building.

    Reluctantly, he looked back to the screen at his elbow as more buildings whipped by on either side of them. While he knew the cab wasn’t going as fast as the maglev had, he was uncomfortably aware that they weren’t riding any kind of rail now, and those buildings were much closer. But then his attention was taken up by the odd fluorescent horizontal stripes on the buildings themselves, colored in day-glow orange. From what he could see, the stripes were at the same level on all the buildings, maybe once every ten or fifteen stories. Fascinated, he forgot his disquiet at how low and fast they were flying. “Excuse me, but what are those stripes?”

    “Flight lanes,” the driver responded at once. “Higher you are, the faster you can go.” The monitor flipped to an image that seemed to be looking out through the windshield; the same as on the screen beside him, but showing much more detail. Overlaid on it was a display showing imaginary curves and planes drawn through the air before the cab. It almost looked as though they were driving on a highway curving through the air. “Trust me, we got just as many rules and regulations as anyone on asphalt.”

    Ah-ha, thought Jericho. The sign he’d seen on the approach to the city made much more sense now.

    “How about if someone can fly on their own?” Bobbi leaned forward in her seat as far as her restraints would allow, to stare at the screen. “They can’t see all those notifications, can they?”

    “Nope. But once they pass their flight cert, they can rent or buy heads-up goggles. Otherwise, they gotta stay low and slow.” The view tilted as the cab banked to go around a building. “Too much chance of an accident, otherwise.”

    “Right.” Luke seemed to be thinking something over. “Uh, hey, driver? What’s them there props run on? ’Cause I ain’t hearin’ no engine nohow.” Now that they were in level flight, Jericho belatedly realized, the thrumming sound from outside was almost non-existent.

    “Batteries.” Thomas, who’d been silent up until then, spoke up. He quirked a grin at Jericho’s expression. “Really high-density ones.”

    “Batteries?” Jericho had to ask. “Really?”

    “Yup.” The driver’s voice was casual. “Big-ass bank of ’em, right under you. Once I finish my shift, I bring the cab into the barn and they charge up overnight.”

    Jericho wasn’t certain he liked the idea of trusting his life to batteries, but it was a little too late to worry about that. In any case, the cab was flying steadily, and he’d heard of stranger things. I just traveled from Savannah to here held up by magnetic forces and gravity generators, after all. “Do you, uh, ever have problems with them? The batteries, I mean?”

    “Nope. Only time I’ve ever heard of them running out was when some idiots jacked a cab and tried to make a run for it. Word is, the driver had been getting close to the end of his shift, and they put it onto max overdrive to get away from the hexes. They got about five miles outside the city limits, then nose-dived into the dirt.” Jericho heard a note of grim satisfaction in the driver’s voice.

    “Uh … hexes?” Bobbi looked dubious. “What’s that?”

    “Police drones,” the cab driver explained. “You won’t miss ’em when you see ’em. Big blocky mothers, fan in the middle.” He paused. “And speakin’ of the devil, there’s one now. One o’clock high.”

    Jericho took a moment to work out which way one o’clock was, then looked up and to the right through the roof-mounted window just as the ‘hex’ came into view. Suiting its nickname, the ruggedly built drone was hexagonal in shape, about six feet across and one foot thick, with a circular opening in the middle that was filled with the blurring of ducted-fan propeller blades. Looking not unlike an extremely law-abiding UFO, it had a paint job reminiscent of a police car, even down to the familiar red and blue lights on each corner. The driver had been right; it really was impossible to mistake for anything else. While it was a good fifty feet above them and heading in the opposite direction, he could still tell that it was going a lot faster than the cab. Seconds later, it was out of sight.

    “So … can a cab on max overdrive go faster’n a hex?” The tone of Luke’s question was almost ludicrously casual; Jericho didn’t believe it for an instant. From the sharp glance Bobbi shot his cousin, she didn’t either.

    The driver chuckled. “Not nearly, buddy. But it’ll drain your power like a mofo. Only an idiot even tries.”

    “Right.” Jericho could have sworn that Luke sighed, just a little. The reason wasn’t hard to discern, given Luke’s interest in the local street racing scene back home. Quite often, these events broke up on the arrival of the police, turning them into an every-man-for-himself scramble. His cousin was quite proud at never having been caught by the forces of law and order; it probably galled him that the local ‘police’ had an unfair advantage in speed.

    “Cheer up,” he told Luke with a grin. “It’s not like they’re gonna pull you over for a missing tail-light.” How would they even issue tickets?

    “Hey, can a guy buy one of these fancy air-car things an’ take it outta town?” Luke asked. With a sinking feeling, Jericho divined the direction of his thoughts. Luke had never been able to look at a car without planning how to soup it up. God, if he got his hands on one of these things …

    “Sorry, buddy.” The cabby’s voice was matter-of-fact. “Some out-of-town VIPs get to use air-limos, but only on license from Force Majeure, and they don’t get to take them out of Utopia. Even the maintenance is all done in-house. Aircars don’t ever leave Utopia.”

    “But why not?” Bobbi sounded curious. “It shouldn’t be too hard to set up an operation like this in New York or LA. Taking the cabs off the street and into the air would deal with a lot of traffic congestion, not to mention air pollution. And if private owners could fly as well, gridlock would be a thing of the past.”

    The driver snorted a laugh. “Yeah, and it’d take exactly one mid-air pileup before some moron decided to sue Force Majeure for supplying the technology in the first place. Plus, I’ve seen the way New Yorkers drive. Here, we all know the rules. It’s better this way, trust me.”

    Jericho cleared his throat. “Talking about rules, you’ve got a sticker here about being Challenger Act compliant. What’s that mean, exactly?”

    “Wait, what again now?” Luke swung his head in Jericho’s direction, followed closely by Bobbi. Predictably, Thomas didn’t react at all. He undoubtedly knew about both the existence of the stickers and the reasoning behind them.

    “Well, I’m guessing you know what the Challenger Act is, yeah?” The cabbie gave them a few seconds to respond, then continued. “Okay, then. Normally you’re recorded on both audio and video as soon as you get in. If someone gets in and invokes the Challenger Act, the recording continues but it’s put under Force Majeure computer seal. All we get is an audio feed. Likewise, if someone leaves something behind in a cab that looks like superhero gear, we turn it straight over to the cops and they let a Designated Liaison handle it.”

    Luke’s expression was intrigued. “So, if a hero hadda git someplace fast, could he call hisself a cab an’ change on th’ way? What if someone in another cab sees him?”

    “I was more wondering what a Designated Liaison was,” Bobbi put in. “But yeah, that’s a good question too.”

    The driver’s chuckle was audible over the intercom system. “To answer the first question; yes, and we can polarize the windows on request. Like so.” In the next moment, the passenger compartment went dead black, except for the glow of the small screens on either side. Tiny lights flared to life, illuminating the interior of the passenger compartment and showing that the windows had been polarized to a mirror sheen. Dozens of reflections of the four of them came back from every angle, making it feel as though they were trapped in a bizarre carnival ride. The effect faded a second or so later, allowing the late-afternoon light to flood in once more.

    “And the Designated Liaison thing?” Jericho prompted.

    “That’s something the cops do,” the driver explained. “Say there’s a hero who’s suspected of committing a crime in one of his identities, but unmasking would prove he wasn’t there. Designated Liaisons are authorized to deal with that sort of situation. They’ve gotta sign about a million NDAs and they get paid five times as much as normal. And they’ve gotta have an Enabled bodyguard on hand twenty-four-seven.”

    “That’s fascinating,” Bobbi said. “How do you know all this? And how come we’ve never heard of this before?”

    “I’ve got a cousin who’s on the force. He’s also a DL. Makes more money than God, but he can’t go out drinking with the boys, and there’s a crapload of stuff he’s just not cleared to talk about.” The driver’s tone sounded like he was glad it wasn’t him. “He says they tried it once in a couple of the other big cities, but the program collapsed after a few of the DLs went away to federal prison for accepting bribes. Apparently, they didn’t want to pay ’em what they were worth. Idiots, if you ask me.” He didn’t specify who the idiots were; the implication was that all parties involved could share the description.

    “Wait jes’ one moment.” Luke sat forward in his seat. “About this-here whole Challenger Act compliance thing. What happens, say, if some Mask gits in a cab in his civvies an’ then hasta do th’ whole change thing halfway through? If th’ driver’s been talkin’ to him, he mighta seen his face. Then the driver goes out drinkin’ later that night an’ it’s all ‘guess what so-an’-so looks like under his mask’. Jes’ sayin’, some folks love ta talk, ‘specially if they knows somethin’ nobody else does. An’ sometimes it’s real hard ta figger out where a rumor started from.”

    Jericho could see where Luke was coming from. As a hero, he liked to think people wouldn’t do that. As someone who had a vested interest in not spreading his secret identity around, he knew he had to stay wary about that sort of thing.

    “Yeah, they had to keep all that in mind from the start,” the cabbie agreed readily enough. “No matter what rules and regulations you’ve got in place, people will talk. So, they came up with a solution. You saw the heads-up display earlier? Everything I see while I’m on duty is image-processed by the onboard computer before it’s projected on the display to overlay what’s really there. People walking on the street or sitting in the cab, all I see is low-resolution contoured outlines. You could be wearing body paint or a parka, and I’d never know. But if someone identifies themselves as an Enabled, I’m happy to orbit a building while they change into or out of their costume. They get to go where they want, and I still get paid just the same.”

    Another question was nagging at Jericho’s mind. He tried to ignore it, but it kept on coming back. “So, uh, not to change the subject, but what about if one of those fans eats a bird or something?”

    “It’s not a problem.” The cabbie’s voice exuded confidence. “These things are damn tough, but if push came to shove, they can fly on three lifters. It’s a bit rough, and regs say you gotta set down as soon as reasonably possible, but it can be done. If we lose two, then that’s an in-flight emergency and you put down as fast as you can. Flying sideways is no fun, but if you gotta do it, you gotta do it.”

    “An’ if you lose three?” Luke was the one who asked the question, though Jericho had been thinking it. Bobbi gave him a dirty look, to which he returned a what? gesture with spread hands.

    “Then you call an emergency and use max overdrive on the last fan to slow yourself down before you hit the ground. It’s a one-way trip, and the cab’s gonna get a bit bent, but you’ll probably survive.”

    “I once saw a two-lifter landing,” offered Thomas. “Freak accident. A cab clipped a building and took out both left-hand lifters. The driver was injured, but he got it down to ground level without quite crashing.”

    Still listening with half an ear, Jericho peered out the window. The buildings were lower on average now, though some were still impressively tall. He could tell that there was still quite a ways to go before they reached the city limits. Below the cab, he saw a flash of sky on water, meandering off between the buildings. They were past before he got a good look, but he presumed it was the canal Thomas had mentioned.

    The nose of the cab tilted upward and the thrumming from outside rose to an audible crescendo. Jericho felt himself being pressed downward into his seat by about half a gee of deceleration, then the cab began to drop out of the sky. Luke went a little green and clutched at the armrests, but Bobbi never lost her composure and Thomas didn’t even seem to notice. In any case, the stomach-dropping sensation was over quickly. His power told him that they were descending at about fifteen feet per second. “Anyway, you’re here. Oaklands, right?”

    Bobbi looked out the window. “Oh, wow. We’re here already? That was fast.” Even as she spoke, the complex of white buildings that Jericho had seen on the map became visible through the rear window. Before he had time to feel alarm about how fast they were dropping, the fans thrummed again.

    There was a brief period of extra weight—again, just half a gee—then he felt the solid clunk as the cab came to rest on the ground. With a click, the doors on both sides unlocked and hinged upward. “All part of the service, ma’am. You folks have a nice day, now.”

    “Yeah, thanks. You too.” Jericho unfastened his restraints and climbed to his feet, then retrieved his overnight bag. While he was there, he handed Bobbi her drag-bag and tossed Luke his backpack. Stepping out of the cab, he took a few steps to get clear of the vehicle.

    Thomas climbed out behind him and stretched. “Thanks,” he said. “I really appreciate you letting me share the cab.”

    “No big deal,” Jericho said. “Thanks for showing us how to use the map and all.” He glanced up and down the street. “You live around here?”

    “Near the market,” Thomas said, gesturing toward what Jericho assumed was the west, given that it was the direction from which the last of the sunlight was streaming overhead. When he looked back, he made eye contact for a long moment before he spoke. “Well, it’s been nice meeting you. Maybe catch up some time?”

    Is he hitting on me? Jericho couldn’t figure it out, one way or the other. He knew what he liked, but he could never tell when other guys liked him. As Luke had already noted, his gaydar was for shit. “Uh, sure,” he said, defaulting to politeness. After all, Thomas seemed nice enough. Trying to get over the awkwardness of the moment, he looked around.

    All the buildings he could see were four or five stories tall, save for one just down the block which was twice that high. The architecture was aesthetically pleasing, while the streets were wide and lined with trees. Everything looked … clean. Not ‘this-was-built-five-minutes-ago’ clean, but neat and well-cared for. No litter, no graffiti. Overhead, streetlights were beginning to come on, combating the encroaching dusk.

    As with the maglev station, the air-cab stand was a few yards off the street, with a low wall blocking it from the street and about five yards of clearance in all directions. It even looked the same as the one back at the station, right down to the bright yellow call post and the rectangular space outlined in color-changing paint, which was even now fading back from red to yellow. As Luke and Bobbi joined them, the cab doors swung down and locked into place. A moment later, the vehicle took off with a thrum of fans and a rush of wind. As it gained altitude, the struts it had landed on folded up under the fuselage. Jericho shaded his eyes against the lingering brightness in the sky, watching until it disappeared behind the nearest buildings.

    “Well, dang.” Luke, looking a little ruffled, was also shading his eyes. “Flyin’ cars. Friggin’ flying cars.

    “Goddamn flying cars,” agreed Jericho. There didn’t seem to be much else to say.

    “What I want to know is what that’s about.” Bobbi pointed at the grille in the middle of the landing area. “Is it something that’s really necessary? Like, to land safely?”

    “It’s for the propwash,” Thomas said helpfully. “Coming down or taking off, the lifters would blow air sideways. Dirt could go in folks’ eyes. Those grilles lead into the storm drains.”

    “Also, when you get close to the ground, it’s like you’re resting on an air cushion,” supplied Jericho. “It’s called ground effect. Screws up control, unless you’re ready for it. I’ve read about it. Choppers get it a lot.” He pointed at the area beside the yellow rectangle. “Plus, that way people can be waiting right there, and kids don’t get blown over. Clever.”

    “Huh.” Bobbi nodded, looking thoughtful. “Learn something new every day.” The grin she directed at Luke was infectious; Jericho knew that his pleased expression was echoing hers. “Flying cars are a really big deal for you, aren’t they?”

    “Well, they didn’t used to be, but they friggin’ well are now,” Luke retorted. “Right, cuz?” Jericho wasn’t overly surprised. Ever since Luke had gotten tall enough to see over a steering wheel, he’d been enthralled by the potential embodied in an engine and four wheels. Despite the fact that flying cars possessed neither engine nor wheels, it seemed he’d found a new interest.

    Jericho was just as intrigued by the concept of a flying car, but he wasn’t about to break the law to learn more about them. “They are pretty cool,” he had to admit. “But it’s just a thing. There’s plenty of other stuff to look at here too, you know.”

    Luke shook his head, and Jericho felt his heart sink slightly. He knew that look all too well. Momentarily, he wondered if they’d let him post Luke’s bail with his MagCard. Luke’s next words confirmed his fears. “Nope. They ain’t ‘just a thing’ no more. Not now I know they’re actually friggin’ real. I mean, I heard stories, but some things you jes’ don’t believe ’til you see ’em, y’know?”

    Exasperated, Jericho shook his head. Luke could be remarkably single-minded when he wanted to be. “Still pretty sure you can’t take one home with you. You heard the guy. They don’t sell ’em for out of town use.”

    “He’s right,” Thomas supplied. “They really don’t.”

    “Yeah, but—” Luke began, then broke off. “Oh, hey. It’s the cops.” His tone went immediately from earnest stubbornness to casual with a hint of caution. Even though Luke was (mostly) a law-abiding citizen these days, it was Jericho’s experience that he never took attention from the police lightly.
     
  11. Threadmarks: Chapter Eighteen: Police Stop
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    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Police Stop

    Jericho and Bobbi turned toward the street, just as an odd-looking vehicle pulled over to the side of the road. It was utterly silent, which explained why they hadn’t heard it. However, the lack of noise wasn’t what drew his attention. The fact that it was hovering a foot above the road was.

    The top half of it was a stock-standard police cruiser; four doors, paint job, bubble lights, the works. On the other hand, there were no wheels to hold it off the ground. He could see a flat plate under the closest corner, held in place by a framework of some sort, but what it did wasn’t obvious. As the vehicle came to a halt, sturdy-looking struts folded down; the car lowered itself onto them. It hadn’t been using any sort of gravity manipulation that he could feel, and there was no wind-rush from ground effect. Which left magnetic levitation, probably not unlike the train he’d ridden in from Savannah. They’d almost certainly covered these in the documentary as well, but he honestly couldn’t remember it. Hovering cop cars. Now I really have seen it all.

    The passenger-side door opened, and a police officer stepped out. He was fit and handsome, his uniform neat and tidy. Jericho didn’t see a protective vest, but the cloth of the uniform did seem to be a little shinier and stiffer than it ought to be. The gun holstered at the cop’s hip also appeared to be of a make that Jericho wasn’t familiar with. Despite the fact that night was beginning to fall, the police officer wore what looked like high-tech sunglasses, about one widget short of being actual goggles.

    The officer made a production of fitting his cap onto his head as he stepped forward, a hint of swagger in his step. From the corner of his eye, Jericho saw Luke’s expression tighten up. Given his background, Luke’s dislike of cops wasn’t exactly unusual, but Jericho knew it was the self-important members of the profession who really drew his ire. Almost instinctively, he stepped forward a little, turning to the side so that he could keep an eye on Luke. This put him closer to the cop than Luke was, which would let him get in between if necessary. He hoped it wouldn’t get that far.

    “Good evening, folks,” the cop said with a smile that looked friendly on the surface, but which Jericho would have bet didn’t extend to his eyes. He took a few more steps forward, all but hooking his thumbs in his equipment belt. Jericho half-expected to hear harmonica music and see a tumbleweed roll past. “Welcome to Utopia City. I trust you had a good trip?” His words said one thing; his attitude, quite another. This town ain’t big enough for the two of us.

    Jericho couldn’t decide whether this guy was just naturally an asshat or if he was just playing it up to get a reaction. Either way, Luke seemed happy to provide one. “With all due respect, what’s it to y’all?” His tone was blunt, showing very little respect indeed. “We ain’t done nothin’ wrong.”

    At Luke’s words, the cop smiled broadly, showing a set of teeth as neat and regimented as his uniform. Jericho waited for the other shoe to drop. It didn’t take long. “No, Mr. Hansen, there’s nothing amiss. This is merely a courtesy call to welcome you to our fair city. You have a good night now, sir. Ma’am.” The words were delivered so smoothly that it took Jericho a couple of seconds to realize that the cop had addressed Luke by name.

    Unfortunately, Luke was only marginally slower on the uptake. Even as the cop nodded toward Bobbi and began to turn back to his car, Jericho’s cousin tried to move toward him. Not at all sure what Luke intended, but wanting to avert a legal catastrophe, Jericho blocked his way with his forearm. Luke allowed him to do this, but Jericho figured it was a near thing.

    “Wait … the hell?” Luke sounded like he was talking through clenched teeth. “How the hell did y’all know who I was?” The fact that he was still talking heartened Jericho. It was the only thing that did. Luke may have punched out a cop or two in his younger days, but that had been a different city with different rules on the street. Neither of them knew what the rules were, here and now.

    “Why do you ask that, sir?” Jericho noted that as the cop turned back around, his attention was fixed entirely on Luke. Probably watching him the whole time, and I didn’t pick up on it. The smartass know-it-all smile persisted. “Were you trying to keep it a secret?” The words were once again innocuous, but the attitude behind them grated at Jericho and it wasn’t even aimed at him.

    “What the frig’s that supposed to mean?” Oh, boy. Here we go. Luke was usually even-tempered, but if anything got through his reserve, he got mad fast. While Jericho had never been on the receiving end of the full effect of Luke’s temper—their spat on the train barely qualified—he’d seen the results from time to time. And now Luke was being deliberately provoked by an asshat cop, in such a way that the officer could claim full deniability.

    “Do you think it should mean something, sir? Is there something I should know?” The officer’s tone sounded friendly on the surface, but Bobbi glanced sharply at him. Jericho wasn’t quite sure why she’d done it, but he was sure it had something to do with the cop’s emotions.

    He put his right hand on his cousin’s left arm. “No, it’s all fine, officer.” Luke glanced at him, clearly ready to keep this going, but Jericho shook his head slightly. Lowering his voice, he hissed, “Luke, let it go. He’s baiting you.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bobbi moving up on Luke’s right side.

    “If you say so, sir,” the officer said. Once again, his voice was smooth, but this time Jericho thought he caught an undertone of satisfaction. “I suppose I’ll …” He paused as if searching for words, then smiled faintly and touched the side of his glasses in a way that didn’t look accidental. “… see you around. Have a nice night, sir.” Is that a camera? Did he just take a photo of us?

    Luke opened his mouth to say something, but Jericho squeezed his arm in warning. “Leave it,” he murmured, barely moving his lips. After a long moment, Luke shut his mouth again. The officer gave him another considering look, then got back into the car and closed the door. Unwilling to take a chance on Luke’s self-control, Jericho stayed right by his side.

    With barely a sound, the police vehicle lifted into the air and glided off down the street, the undercarriage folding back into place as it went. Jericho watched it go, while beside him Luke clenched his fists as if he wanted to run after it and beat the crap out of the officers within.

    “Well, that wasn’t creepy at all,” declared Bobbi firmly. She looked up at Luke. “You okay?”

    “Pissed as hell,” Luke replied bluntly. “That there asshole just walked up an’ said he was watchin’ me. Just outta the friggin’ blue. What the livin’ goddamn hell? Was that a black thing? I reckon it was a black thing.” However, belying his tone, the scarred skin over his knuckles was fading to pink as his fists unclenched. Jericho began to breathe a little more easily. It looked as though Luke wasn’t going to be celebrating his arrival in Utopia City by punching a cop. So far, anyway.

    “He meant to put you on edge,” Bobbi said thoughtfully. “The whole thing was deliberate. I got the impression that it’s almost a routine with them.” She put her head to one side and looked up at Luke again. “I’m guessing you’ve got a record.”

    Jericho stepped away from his cousin, giving him his space. Yeah, you could say that.

    Luke grimaced, but her tone had been more speculative than accusatory. “Yeah,” he admitted at last. “Minor shit. An’ there’s some stuff they couldn’t make stick. Tried, though.”

    Jericho stayed silent. He was aware of most of Luke’s record, at least from before he’d come out to his cousin with his powers. While he didn’t approve of it all, he was pretty sure Luke had never hurt anyone who wasn’t asking for it. Stephen included. And it wasn’t as though selling weed was a capital crime.

    “That’ll be it, then.” Bobbi nodded. “It wasn’t about Jericho and me. It was about you, but it wasn’t a, uh, black thing.” She looked at Luke’s cynical expression. “Well, think about it. It wasn’t about the color of your skin, it’s the fact that you’ve got a record. You’re not in Georgia anymore.”

    “Nope, we’re in Kansas.” Luke’s tone was definite. “Ever hear tell of ‘Bleeding Kansas’? Even before th’ Civil War started, back when this was still a territory, there was folks takin’ up arms so’s they wouldn’t have to give up ownin’ slaves. People died over it. Trust me when I say it c’n be a black thing here, too.”

    Bobbi nodded to acknowledge his point. “True. This is Kansas. But it’s also Utopia City. I’m getting the distinct impression that inside city limits, it’s a whole new ball game. That cop was way more interested in your criminal record than the color of your skin.”

    Her analysis sounded about right. Once again, Jericho decided that her powers were quite impressive. She’d definitely make one hell of a therapist.

    “Jes’ gonna say, that ain’t much better.” Luke looked at the both of them. “How’d he even know I had a record? We jes’ got here.” His expression was one that Jericho had seen before, a mixture of anger and bafflement. Fortunately, that combination was rare, because it generally preceded Luke punching something. Or someone.

    Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
     
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  12. Threadmarks: Chapter Nineteen: Checking In
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    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Checking In

    "Wouldn’t have mattered either way.”

    On hearing Thomas’ voice, Jericho looked around. He didn’t see him at first, but then he noticed a tree-lined walkway leading into the accommodation complex. The trees were thick enough that anyone entering would be hidden after just a few steps, and Thomas appeared to have taken advantage of that fact. He was just now moving back into view, looking as casual as ever. “They track MagCard use. The card connects back to a bank account that you own, so from there they can monitor all your MagCard use. Where you go, what you buy with it. The whole box of dice.”

    “They’re tracking everyone’s MagCards, all the time?” Bobbi’s tone was less than thrilled. “That’s a little frightening.”

    Jericho shook his head. The amount of effort involved with intercepting every visitor to the city would be untenable, even if the entire police force was dedicated toward just that. “No, I can’t see it. I figure they just look at folks coming in from out of town. Anyone with a record gets tagged for a visit from the cops. Just to say hi, and let us know they’re watching.” And maybe to push them a little, to see if they can provoke them into reacting. The way Luke nearly did.

    “Almost exactly that, yeah,” Thomas agreed, snapping his fingers in apparent agreement. “But they check on residents, too. Anyone who looks like a potential problem gets the occasional visit. They call it ‘pre-emptive policing’.” There was a certain tone to his voice which indicated deep feelings on the subject. Jericho recalled that Thomas had absented himself quite handily when he saw the police car coming and wondered why the affable young man didn’t want to be noticed by the police. Then he wondered why the officer hadn’t realized Thomas was there; after all, he’d used his MagCard to help pay for the taxi ride as well. There was more to Thomas, he decided, than met the eye.

    “Well, screw them,” Luke said sharply, setting his jaw. “I’ll just use cash everywhere. Let’s see the assholes track that.” If the police had intended to force his cousin to leave Utopia City, Jericho mused, they’d managed to achieve the exact opposite result.

    “Might not be possible,” Bobbi pointed out before Jericho could say the same thing. “Remember how the guy back at the terminal said basically everyone uses MagCards?”

    Luke’s expression turned abruptly sour. “Screw it. I’ll work it out in the mornin’. Let’s go git us a room.” He started toward the accommodation complex.

    “With you in a sec.” Jericho turned to Thomas. “You’ll be okay from here?” He wasn’t quite sure what to make of the younger man anymore. The guy didn’t seem to be an out-and-out criminal—Bobbi would’ve kicked him to the curb if that was the case—but neither did he come across as being totally on the straight and narrow. Over and above all that, there was something subtly different about him, and Jericho just couldn’t put his finger on it.

    “Sure.” Thomas gave him a carefree grin. “Thanks for caring. And thanks for the meal.” Lifting his hand for a moment, he brushed Jericho’s cheek with his fingertips, so lightly that skin barely contacted skin. “See you around.” Turning, he strode off down the sidewalk.

    With a double blink of confusion, Jericho watched him go then turned to where Bobbi was waiting for him. Hoisting his overnight bag onto his shoulder, he went to join her. “Was that … what I think it was?” he asked doubtfully. “Did he just hit on me?”

    She chuckled indulgently. “Silly Jericho. Of course he did.” As they started down the walkway, she looked up at him. “Doesn’t that happen very often? Because I find that hard to believe. From a purely aesthetic point of view, I mean.” The grin she gave him was filled with mischief.

    “It might,” he admitted. This wasn’t something he talked about very often, because nobody really asked him, and it was kind of embarrassing. “I’m crap at telling if someone’s interested in me. I had a bad experience a long time ago, and I can’t help second-guessing myself. I mean, most of the time I’m good with people, just not with that. And any time I assume I know what’s going on, I’m usually wrong.”

    “Huh, damn,” Bobbi mused. “That’s kinda sucky.” She gave Jericho a smile. “Well, take it from me, he was definitely interested.”

    The walkway led through into a courtyard of sorts, with trees in planters to the left and right. Luke was waiting for them, backpack slung over his shoulder. “I didn’t like the pretentious prick,” he grumbled, clearly having overheard Bobbi’s comment. “Who-all calls themselves ‘Thomas’, anyway? What’s wrong with ‘Tom’?” He gave Jericho a warning glance. “He’s in the game, somehow. You see him again, don’t trust him nohow.”

    “Is this because you don’t want me rebounding on someone else before I give Stephen another chance, or something else?” Jericho asked bluntly. He’d found Thomas likable, if a little puzzling, and it was so emotionally draining to have his judgment called into doubt yet again. Besides, it wasn’t as if he was actively interested in pursuing a new relationship; he’d only just met the guy, after all.

    “Well, that too.” Luke shook his head. “Let’s drop it. I don’t wanna fight over it.” Turning, he led the way into the courtyard proper. It was wide and airy, and Bobbi’s drag-bag jumped and clattered over the concrete pavers. The left side of the enclosure had an open door under a large LED sign that said ‘RECEPTION’. The word ‘VACANCY’ was also displayed in a welcoming green; Luke headed in that direction.

    On the point of following his cousin, Jericho began to wonder about the legalities of the cops’ acquisition of MagCard information. Unable to figure it out for himself, he turned to Bobbi. “Wouldn’t the cops getting that sort of information on us come under invasion of privacy? Against search and seizure laws or something?”

    Bobbi shrugged. “Maybe. Or maybe the local by-laws allow it. This is a city with a high proportion of Enabled. I wouldn’t put it past supervillains to come here and cause trouble just because they can. So, I’m guessing the local cops are extremely proactive as a result.”

    “Hmm.” After a moment’s thought, Jericho decided that if anyone could unpick the motives behind what had just happened, it would be someone who could read emotions like a book. “You’re probably right. Good thing that none of us is a supervillain.” He grinned and raised his voice slightly. “Hey, Luke. Still want a flying car, or would you prefer a cop car?”

    “Depends on how far those assholes push me,” Luke grumbled, and stomped ahead. Jericho shared a grin with Bobbi and followed on, glancing around with mild curiosity.

    The perimeter of the courtyard was surrounded by a covered walkway lined with trellises, each entwined with finely dividing green vines bearing delicate indigo flowers. An open space in the middle held a dozen concrete picnic tables topped by broad umbrellas, apparently of a type that could be tilted to the side. It struck Jericho as a little strange that they were all tilted to the same angle, in the same direction. Which, as he realized a moment later, was due west. Toward where the sun had set, not so long ago.

    “Jericho.” Bobbi’s voice held a tinge of mild exasperation. “What’ve you found to look at now?”

    He looked around a little guiltily to where she stood in the reception doorway. “Nothing much,” he admitted, gesturing at the angled sunshades. “Just that the umbrellas must be remote controlled or something. You see how they’re all tilted the same way?”

    “How you never came here as a tourist, I have no idea,” she huffed. “Stop ogling the umbrellas and get in here. We’ve still got a room to book.” He watched as she hauled her drag-bag over the step to get into the reception area.

    With a chuckle, he followed her inside, to where Luke was already leaning up against the reception desk. Jericho wasn’t too surprised to see a MagCard reader next to his cousin’s elbow. In fact, it went a long way toward confirming what the food stall attendant and the cabbie had said about Utopia City. Looks like everything does run on MagCard around here.

    The receptionist, a carefully presented lady whom Jericho gauged to be in her late forties, looked them over. Her nametag said her name was Helena. “And how many rooms will you be requiring?” she asked bluntly.

    “Jes’ the one, ma’am, if ya don’t mind.” Luke’s tone was almost breezy. Jericho eyed him a little suspiciously, because the attitude shift was in direct contrast to the surliness he’d been showing just moments earlier. However, it didn’t seem to be an act. Which was a little odd, given that in Jericho’s experience, Luke was slow to anger but he was also slow to calm down again afterward. Maybe he’s on his best behavior for Bobbi. She did say that anger made her uncomfortable. Whatever the reason, Jericho was grateful for it. A pissed-off Luke, best friend or no, was not the most pleasant of company.

    Helena’s reserve melted slightly at the combination of Luke’s tone and his charming smile. “I meant bedrooms, young man,” she said, not as severely as she might have. “Oaklands does not supply mere hotel rooms. We have short-stay apartments, with separate bedrooms. Now, will you still be requiring just the one?” One carefully manicured eyebrow lifted as she eyed the three of them together.

    “Uh, no,” Bobbi said hastily; Jericho carefully hid a grin. When she shot him a mild glare, he schooled his features into innocence. It didn’t seem to fool her. “Three bedrooms, thanks.”

    “Y’know, if it’s easier, we c’n take two bedrooms an’ a sofa,” Luke suggested. “I can bed down on a sofa easy. Or the floor, happen y’all got an air mattress.” He seemed to be sincere, but Jericho wasn’t sure if he was just offering out of a sense of personal obligation.

    “We do have a two-bedroom accommodation with a fold-out sofa bed.” Jericho heard the receptionist’s tone loud and clear: Though I have no idea why you’d choose that. “I must advise you that the sofa bed is not as comfortable as the standard beds. It’s very much for last-minute bookings.”

    Jericho looked at Luke and shook his head. “You don’t need to do this,” he said, making a bet with himself that his words wouldn’t change Luke’s mind. “We can get a three-bed place just as easily.”

    “Is the two beds an’ a sofa cheaper than three beds?” Luke directed the question to Helena. “’Cause if it is, we’ll take it.” Mentally, Jericho paid out on the bet. Called it.

    “It is, yes,” the receptionist said. “A hundred per night instead of one-twenty.” Jericho’s eyes widened. … wait a second. How much was that again?

    “Wait.” Bobbi held up her hand. “Okay, I don’t get this at all. How the heck can you afford to run a place like this so cheaply? I mean, the prices for everything are way too cheap. Seventy bucks for the maglev ticket. Eleven bucks for a cab to get us here. One-twenty bucks a night for three people. Even food’s cheap. How does that even work?” The tone of her voice said quite clearly that she wasn’t going to let this go until she had answers.

    She’d voiced almost exactly what he’d been thinking. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “How does that work? Is there a hidden cost on our MagCards that nobody’s told us about? A fine for leaving the city?” Neither of those options seemed overly likely. What am I missing?

    “Or do we just hafta pay for walkin’ down the street or somethin’?” asked Luke. “Or for breathin’ the air?” That last one, Jericho had to admit, was somewhat imaginative but probably unenforceable.

    Shaking her head, Helena smiled politely. “It’s nothing like that. Our overheads are low, so we can afford to charge rock-bottom prices. Of course, we do charge a refundable deposit, and it does cost extra for sheets, pillows and towels, and to have the fridge stocked with alcohol. And to have food supplied.” She handed Bobbi a laminated sheet. “It’s all on here.”

    Bobbi examined the list; with an effort, Jericho stopped himself from peering over her shoulder. “One dollar per sheet,” she read out loud. “Five dollars per pillow. Five dollars per towel. Alcohol supplied at cost plus five percent. Meals supplied with a five dollar surcharge.” She looked up at the receptionist. “This still doesn’t even begin to cover your overheads.” With her free hand, she gestured at the courtyard. With full night beginning to come on, lights were now illuminating it brightly. “I mean, your electricity bill alone would blow through this in no time.”

    While Jericho didn’t know what the power bill for a complex this size would come to, he was certain he didn’t want to pay it. Just one apartment for a few nights wouldn’t be a very large chunk of the total, but it would still add more to the cost than was already there.

    “Ah.” Helena’s smile never dimmed. “I see your confusion. I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to mislead. You see, when I said overheads in Utopia were low, I meant it. Electricity, for example, is free.”

    But that’s impossible. “Wait, wait,” protested Jericho. “Electricity has to come from somewhere. You can get it cheap, but you can’t get it for nothing.” The idea just didn’t make sense. Even if it was supplied by a solar farm or wind turbines—which, unless Force Majeure had a tornado in a cage somewhere, still wouldn’t cut it for a city of that size—there was maintenance and so forth to be paid for.

    “We do, sir,” the receptionist said simply. “I moved to Utopia about eight years ago and I’ve been here ever since. Electricity’s always been free, which makes everything that requires electricity to manufacture—or get—really inexpensive.” Which meant, Jericho realized, that they could charge minimal prices and still make a profit. The only things that would cost a significant amount were those things that they had to source from outside. Which I bet they’re manufacturing more of all the time. It’s what I’d do.

    With a wondering shake of his head, Jericho tried to imagine how Force Majeure had pulled it off. No wonder Utopia City had expanded so quickly, when they didn’t have to worry about such a pervasive cost as electricity to hold them back. I bet it was the Technologist. It sounds like something he’d do, just to prove to every other artificer that he’s still the best around. It made the flying cars look tame. Hell, it made the maglev look tame. Except that … Wait a minute. Do they power the whole goddamn maglev system with their free electricity? That epiphany, and the implications thereof, staggered him. Jeez, how much power are they generating? And where’s it coming from?

    “Hey. Cuz.” The patiently amused tone of Luke’s voice told Jericho that his cousin’s normal good humor was fully back in place. “Getcher head outta the clouds. Gotta swipe for the room.” As Jericho came back to earth, he saw Luke gesturing at the MagCard sensor panel. “We’re still goin’ thirds, right?”

    “Yeah, of course.” Reflexively, he pulled out his wallet and extracted the card. Swiping it across the sensor elicited a cheerful beep from the machine.

    “Thank you.” Helena gave him a beaming smile. “You’re in one-two-oh-four. It’s in Block One, just across the courtyard; go around the trellis to get to the passageway, then straight on through. The elevator’s back under the building. Your apartment’s on the second floor, northwest corner. Sheets, towels and pillows should be there by the time you get there. Feel free to ring me here at the desk to get meals delivered. Any questions?”

    “Uh, yeah.” Jericho was still a little dazed from the massive shift in his worldview of a few moments before, but something still seemed to be missing. “Room keys?”

    “Already got ’em.” Luke held up his MagCard. “These’ll let us in, cuz. Keep up, will ya?”

    “Ah, right.” It made sense. After all, given the importance of the MagCard, it was definitely a good idea to keep it close by at all times. He hefted the overnight bag and headed out into the courtyard, with Luke and Bobbi right behind him. Halfway across, he stopped when movement caught his eye. Fascinated, he stared as the umbrellas began to return to their vertical positions, moving in eerie synchronization.

    “What the hell?” Luke was also staring. “Y’all seein’ that?”

    “Yeah.” It was just another weird thing in a day filled with high-tech strangeness. Relieved that Luke found it odd as well, he watched the umbrellas close themselves; the once-taut cloth drooping to hang in lazy folds. Just as he was about to walk away, the dull-black cloth itself caught his eye, something about how the unusual way light played across the repeating hexagonal pattern. He started toward the closest table, intent on examining it closer.

    “Seriously. Boys.” Bobbi sounded exasperated. “What is it about automatically closing umbrellas that’s got you so mesmerized? We got here in a flying car.” She stepped up alongside Luke and shook her head. “If you’re going to stop and stare at everything new you see, we’ll be here all night.”

    With a nod, Jericho turned away from the picnic table. “You’ve got a point. But if you saw something like this back home, you’d stop and look twice. I know I would.”

    “Well, true.” With a roll of her eyes, Bobbi conceded the point. “Back home, something like that would be pretty amazing. But here? I’ve seen about a dozen cooler things since I got off the train. And that’s not counting the train itself.” She pointed at the now-motionless umbrellas. “That sort of thing doesn’t even make the radar anymore.”

    “Jes’ ’cause it ain’t the coolest thing around don’t mean it ain’t cool.” Luke snorted. “Bet you was the type ta tell the other kids there weren’t no Santa Claus, too.” Holding his backpack over his shoulder with one hand and the MagCard in the other, he moved past Jericho in the direction of the covered walkway. In another moment, he’d vanished from sight behind one of the trellises.
     
  13. Threadmarks: Chapter Twenty: Home Comforts
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Home Comforts

    After one last thoughtful glance at the umbrellas, Jericho looked around to discover that Bobbi had gone on to join Luke, though he could still hear her voice. “So what if I was? It’s no favor to let them keep believing in a lie.” He wasn’t quite sure whether she was trying to convince Luke or herself.

    Rounding the trellis, he found himself at the entrance to a well-lit corridor that ran under the building. He’d had a vague idea of cutting off the incipient argument, but it looked like he was too late for that; Luke had always had strong views on the subject. Resigning himself to the inevitable, he moved up to join the pair.

    “Sometimes folks is better off believin’ th’ lie than knowin’ th’ truth.” Standing in front of an elevator set into the side of the corridor, Luke swiped his card on the ever-present reader. The doors dinged musically as they opened. “If folks cain’t work it out for themselves, might could be they wanna believe th’ lie.”

    “But that’s not right.” Bobbi shook her head as she towed her drag-bag into the elevator. “People deserve to know the truth. Lying to them is just hurting them, in the long run. Jericho, tell him.”

    “Hey, don’t pull me into this. I don’t really care either way.” Following Luke into the confined space, Jericho watched as his cousin pressed the button for the second floor. Apart from one odd button—bright green, with a white domino mask shape stamped into it—Jericho couldn’t see a difference between this and any other elevator he’d been in, even down to the mirror on the back wall. He wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or disappointed.

    Bobbi stared at him, her expression one of betrayal, as the elevator started upward. “But—” she began.

    Shaking his head, Jericho raised his hand. “Let me stop you right there. I’m not a fan of keeping secrets that hurt people. But I’ve come to Utopia City because of a secret that I only share with a few people. So have you. You think we should be spreading those secrets around, too?” Half-turning toward the mirror on the back wall of the elevator, he deliberately distanced himself from the argument.

    For a moment, Bobbi faltered before she rallied and tried again. “That’s different. Secrets like that would hurt our families if they got out. I’m talking about secrets that don’t hurt people when they get out.”

    “So, how’s believin’ in Santa hurt kids?” The tone of Luke’s voice was derisive. “Lemme tell you a story. My li’l sis Serena was in th’ first grade when Great-grandpappy Frank turned up his toes. First actual Christmas we ever had. Jericho’s daddy got us all gifts, but fo’ her he bought the reddest friggin’ tricycle you ever did see, an’ signed it from Santa.” He grinned. “She rid that thing all day, every day. Went back ta school tellin’ everyone what Santa got her.”

    “And wouldn’t the other kids have made fun of her?” There was doubt in Bobbi’s voice.

    “They sho’nuff tried.” The elevator stopped with a ding and the doors hummed open. “I was there. She stomped right up ta th’ biggest one an’ tole him that if she was Santa Claus an’ he went around sayin’ he didn’t believe in her, she wouldn’t bring him nothin’ neither.” Luke stepped out of the elevator; courteously, Jericho waited for Bobbi to get out before him.

    The argument, far from being brought to a halt, just kept on going. Jericho did his best to stay out of it by checking out the helpful signage which pointed them toward their apartment. It all seemed rather straightforward, although he did have to wonder why there was a strip of well-worn linoleum covering one-third the width of the oddly wide corridor.

    He led them in the appropriate direction while they debated the matter back and forth. By the time they reached the appropriate corridor, Luke and Bobbi had reached the stage of ‘what if’ scenarios, positing more and more contrived scenarios to try to prove their points.

    “Okay, I got one for you.” Luke sounded pleased with himself. “Suppose you got hitched to an axe murderer—”

    “Are we assuming I’ve got my powers or not?” Bobbi interrupted. “Because if I do, I’d know what he was the moment I met him.” She tapped the side of her head.

    “Lemme finish.” Luke waited a moment, then kept going. “Yeah, you got your powers, but he doesn’t wanna murder you. He likes you, you like him. He decides to drop th’ whole axe murderer thing, you have kids with him, everythin’s fine. Then, ten years later, after you got a good life, you find his diary or somethin’ an’ discover he useta chop folks into little bits an’ pieces. Ya know that if ya turn him in, all th’ good stuff goes away. Ya lose him, mebbe lose th’ kids. But ya also know he’s killed dozens o’ people. What-all are ya gonna do?”

    Jericho had other matters on his mind. They had passed the doorway for one-two-oh-two just a few moments ago and turned the corner. Directly ahead, the corridor ended in a window. Ahead and to the left was the door for 1203, while opposite it was the one they’d been assigned; that is, 1204. Where the door was standing wide open.

    Before Bobbi could answer, Jericho held up his hand. “Whoa, guys, shut it for a second.”

    “What’s up, cuz?” Luke’s voice was curious, but he didn’t try to move past Jericho. “Why’d you stop?”

    “Someone’s in our apartment.” With barely a thought, Jericho dropped his overnight bag on the floor and curled his right hand to form a glue-tag. He didn’t know exactly what was going on, but he didn’t intend to be caught unawares. Cautiously, he edged forward, listening for untoward noises. The only thing he heard was an electronic humming, which didn’t fill him with confidence. He trailed his left hand on the wall, trying to use his G-sense to detect any dense masses—such as guns—moving within the apartment. He was working on getting the sense to function as effectively as radar, but he had a ways to go on that. All he got was the sense of a single mass of mid-level density and uncertain size …

    In the next moment, the hum became louder as a complex-looking boxy cart rolled out through the open door and turned toward them, trundling onto the strip of linoleum. Jericho held himself back from tossing the G-tag; while he’d seen Artificer-built killing machines on TV, this looked more like the maid’s cart without the maid. On the front of the device was the Oaklands logo and the number sixteen. “What the hell?” he asked out loud.

    “Greetings.” The cart spoke with a synthesized feminine voice as it rolled to a stop a few yards away. Fortunately for Jericho’s sense of the surreal, it sounded different to the one employed by UML for their announcements. “I am Room Service one-six. May I help you?” Behind it, the apartment door swung shut with an audible click.

    “Wait.” Luke found his voice first. “What was you doin’ in our apartment?”

    “Apologies. I am unable to formulate complex answers. Apartment one-two-zero-four has been supplied with towels, sheets and pillows. Beds have been made up. Does that answer your query?”

    With a sigh, Jericho let the glue-tag dissolve into nothingness. “Yeah, it does. Is all the room service around here like you?” He wondered if it would even be able to answer the question. What does it do if it gets a question it can’t answer? Ring the front desk?

    “All room service in Oaklands Temporary Accommodation is carried out by units similar to myself,” the cart answered. “Does that answer your query?”

    Huh. It must get asked that a lot. “Yeah, you’re fine,” Jericho said, feeling a little embarrassed. “Carry on.”

    “Thank you. Have a pleasant evening.” The cart started up again and rolled past them along the strip of linoleum, then came to a halt. “Excuse me.” Looking back, Jericho saw that it had unfolded a mechanical arm from its side. When he’d dropped his overnight bag, it had fallen partly onto the linoleum; the cart was now lifting the bag by its straps. “Does this luggage belong to you?”

    “Uh, yeah, sorry.” Jericho hastened back to retrieve his bag. To his relief, the metal and plastic claw released the straps as soon as he took hold of them. “Thanks.”

    “You are welcome. Please take care of your luggage. Have a pleasant evening.”

    It rolled off again; as the humming sound faded into the distance, Bobbi looked at Luke and Jericho. “Well?” she asked. “Isn’t someone going to say ‘how damn cool was that’?”

    Jericho shared a glance with Luke; with an effort, he kept a straight face. “Nah,” he decided. “Seen one robot room-service cart, you seen them all. Luke?”

    “What you said, cuz.” For all the excitement he was showing, Luke could’ve been relaxing over a cup of coffee. “I mean, geez, we-all got us flyin’ police robots. Why in hell do we need to git fussed over some room service cart?”

    “Assholes.” Bobbi tried to glare at them, but Jericho thought he saw a smile lurking on her lips. “You’re forgetting one thing. I can read your goddamn emotions. You’re not fooling me for one goddamn minute.” Pausing at the door, she looked back. “And just so you know, I’d turn the asshole in anyway. My feelings don’t matter; what matters is that he faces justice for what he’s done.” She swiped her card over the door reader, resulting in a soft beep and a click as the door unlocked. Pushing the door open, she entered the apartment.

    Amused and exasperated in equal parts by the disagreement, Jericho turned to Luke. “Okay, now can you drop it? Seriously, I don’t want to be listening to this shit all night.”

    “Sho’nuff, cuz.” Luke’s shrug was elaborately unconcerned. “So, what about that robot cart? How friggin’ cool was that?

    Jericho grinned at the enthusiasm in his cousin’s voice. “Oh, hell yes.” He gave his cousin a warning look as he followed Bobbi into the apartment. “Just so long as you aren’t fixing to try drag-racing it down the hallways.”

    The grin he got back from Luke didn’t exactly fill him with confidence. “Hey. This is me.”

    “I know,” retorted Jericho, then he turned his attention to his surroundings. The apartment was … nice. Bland, with far less personality than the one Jericho shared with Stephen back in Savannah, but nice all the same. The main room, not exactly large, was dominated by a large-screen TV on one side and a picture window on the other. Below the window, which looked out on to the tree-lined street, there was a sofa with a neatly folded towel and set of sheets on it, as well as a pillow. Alongside the sofa was a small table with two chairs next to it.

    Three doors on the far side of the room led to the bedrooms and bathroom as indicated by helpful symbols on the doors, while a dividing counter separated the kitchen nook from the rest of the room. It was equipped, as far as Jericho could see, with a counter-top stove, a microwave and a full-sized fridge. The only decoration in the living room was a large canvas print showing an aerial view of Utopia City by night, with the Spire front and center, illuminated by floodlights.

    “Oh, thank God.” Bobbi’s voice was more of a groan. “I don’t care that the maglev’s clean and fast, I need a shower right now, so bad.” She flicked a glance at Jericho and Luke. “I mean, if that’s okay with you guys.”

    Gay or not, Jericho had learned respect for women at his father’s knee. While he was already inclined to say yes, he sensed there was more to Bobbi’s comment than met the eye. He was looking forward to a shower, and he suspected that Luke was as well, but there was the added factor of Bobbi being an empath. The constant proximity of hundreds of strangers during her train ride, and even the casual nearness of himself and Luke during the latter part of the trip, had to have left a lingering psychic impression on her. In her place, he suspected he’d be wanting to scrub his skin down to the bone.

    “Go right ahead,” he affirmed, with a glance at Luke. As he’d thought, his cousin was already nodding in assent. “Just don’t use all the hot water, okay?”

    She still had enough of her sense of humor left to grin at him. “I don’t think that’s possible. Free electricity, remember?” Pushing open the left-hand bedroom door, she disappeared inside with her drag-bag in tow. The door shut behind her and he thought he heard the complaining of bedsprings, as though someone had flopped full-length onto the mattress.

    “Oh, yeah,” he said out loud. “Good point.” He dropped his overnight bag on the floor and headed for the TV. Taking up the remote, he retired to the sofa and flopped into it. “Luke, you wanna see what they got to drink in the fridge?” he asked as he levered at the heel of one sneaker with the toe of the other. Pressing the power button on the remote, he turned on the TV and brought up the channel menu. There were a lot of channels.

    “An’ what’d your last friggin’ involuntary indentured servant die of?” asked Luke, already on his way into the kitchenette.

    “Being a smartass,” Jericho retorted. Even with the euphemism that Luke habitually employed, it was a measure of the friendship between them that they could make this joke, and they never used it around anyone they didn’t trust. Especially in places where it could be taken the wrong way, which meant basically anywhere.

    “Screw you too.” Luke’s answer was automatic. “Hey, ya know you c’n pick a channel an’ stay on it. Nobody’s gonna judge.”

    Jericho flicked past some more movie channels, paused at the mention of a couple of TV shows that he liked, then settled on a news channel out of Florida. “Just looking to see if anything happened to those two morons in Tallahassee.” He was pretty sure they were both alive, though there was a very real chance they’d be charged with reckless endangerment. After all, those cops had been killed trying to save them from the Madness.

    “Hope the cops throw the goddamn book at ’em,” said Luke sourly. “There’s a place an’ a time for that sort of shit, an’ that ain’t it.”

    Jericho’s second sneaker popped off at about the time the bathroom door closed behind Bobbi, and he took a moment to remove his socks as well. He turned the sound up as Luke got back to the sofa and handed him a bottle. It was chilled, with bubbles rising lazily inside, but the label was unfamiliar. Utopia Gold, he read. In smaller print, around the perimeter of the label it said Brewed in Utopia City.

    “The hell?” he asked. “They brew beer here?” Utilizing a trick his Uncle Leroy had taught him once upon a time, he pushed his sleeve up and pressed the cap of the bottle hard against the underside of his forearm. Clenching his fist to flex the muscles in his forearm, he twisted the bottle and popped the cap off. After a cautious mouthful, he judged that it wasn’t too bad, if a little fizzy. He took a longer drink then burped, the released gases burning sweetly in his sinuses.

    “Looks like.” Luke picked up the sheets, towel and pillow and dumped them on the table, then slumped down on the sofa, not even bothering to take his boots off. He held his bottle to his mouth and tilted it skyward; Jericho could see the air bubbles glugging up toward the bottom. When he took the bottle away and belched, it was a magnificent rolling eructation that should have rattled the window. Jericho felt like applauding.

    The beer was very easy to get used to, but fortunately for his state of sobriety, Jericho couldn’t be bothered getting up to fetch another. On finishing the bottle, he let out another burp and turned his attention back to the TV. It seemed the idiots had indeed fallen afoul of the law. They couldn’t be named, or their faces even shown on TV, due to their being under eighteen, but he got the impression that the courts were going to come down heavily on them. Well, good.

    When that story ran out, he turned the channel back to a more nationwide coverage. There was a spot on the Team Power press conference that Bobbi had mentioned, with Tess and Adam Power giving a no-holds-barred interview. The hostility from the reporters wasn’t hard to spot; they were throwing question after question like sharks scenting blood.

    Adam Power was ruggedly handsome, with blond hair. As befitted his age, he was going gray at the temples, giving him a distinguished appearance. At the moment, he was tight-lipped and strained, and answered relatively few questions. His wife Tesseract, a striking redhead, had always been cool under pressure. In this situation, she definitely needed it.

    “How do you reconcile your daughter’s accusations and continuing absence with your husband’s claims of innocence?” demanded a solidly built woman as she thrust her microphone almost into Tess’ face. Her accent—from Arkansas, if Jericho was any judge—was downright familiar. The hectoring tone he’d heard from dozens of ‘concerned friends’ since he’d come out, was (unfortunately) equally so.

    From the look in her eye, the redhead wanted to punch her interrogator, but she restrained herself in an admirable fashion. “The physical evidence we had at the time was inconclusive,” she shot back. “Adam says he was in his workshop at the time, and I believe him. It has to be a clone or an impostor.”

    That got the attention of several of the reporters. “Why not just call it an evil twin?” jibed the blocky woman. “That’s just as likely, isn’t it? Or mind control? We haven’t had a real mind controller since Mindscrew. Do you think he’s back?”

    Tess Power shook her head fiercely. “It’s not Adam’s evil twin. Adam dealt with that bastard back in oh-four, while I tracked down the Clone Arranger and made him eat his duplicate-gun. As for Mindscrew, the FBI’s had his remains in cold storage since ’ninety-seven. Forty-four caliber bullet to the back of the head.” That was news to Jericho; it seemed that Team Power had access to better information than the average man on the street. “Anyway, he couldn’t control minds. He just read them, then blackmailed people with the information he got.”

    “And where’s your daughter now?” This was a smartly presented man with black hair that had been styled to within an inch of its existence. “Has your husband done away with her to save his own skin, or do you have her locked up in the basement? Are you helping conceal his crimes?”

    It was perhaps fortunate that Adam Power didn’t have an offensive Dynamic power rating; if he’d possessed destructive eyebeams of any kind, the man would’ve died then and there. “Listen, you,” the hero snapped. “If you think for one second I touched Vanessa in any way, you—”

    Tess put her hand on her husband’s arm, and he shut up. “I believe that both my husband and my daughter are telling the truth,” she stated, sounding far calmer than Jericho would’ve been in the same situation. “I don’t know where Vanessa is right now, but she left of her own accord. She’s very resourceful, and she can take care of herself, but I’m her mother and I will keep looking for her.” Several of the reporters went to ask questions, but she talked straight over the top of them. “No matter what else happens, we’re still Team Power. We got this. We will prove Adam’s innocence, and we will get Vanessa back.”

    The camera cut back to the studio, where the immaculately presented news anchor was straightening the papers on her desk. “Well, there you have it,” she declared brightly. “In other news, the New York based superhero team Manhattan Justice has announced—”

    “Shower’s free,” announced Bobbi as she emerged from the bathroom. Jericho muted the TV and looked around. Now clad in brightly colored flannel pajamas, she was vigorously toweling her hair dry and looked somewhat more relaxed. “Whew, that’s so much better,” she said cheerfully. “Oh, and they’ve got a washer-dryer in there too. Which makes sense, seeing they had detergent on that list of stuff we could buy.” She eyed the sofa dubiously. “Haven’t you boys figured that thing out yet?”

    “Later,” Luke said lazily. Then his eyes opened as he came fully out of his half-doze. “Oh, hey, did ya say—”

    Jericho knew what was coming and preempted his cousin. “Dibs on next shower!” He came to his feet in one smooth move, then took a single long step and grabbed up his overnight bag. Turning on his heel, he headed for the bathroom. Racing for the shower was a time-honored tradition from their younger days, but ‘dibs’ usually settled the matter.

    “Not if I git there first, cuz.” Luke quickly rolled off the sofa and landed on one knee, his hand already reaching out for his discarded backpack. Which changed things; this was now definitely a race. And while Luke was on one knee, Jericho was several feet farther away from the bathroom door. If Luke could get to his feet and beat Jericho there, the race would be over and done. Jericho watched his hand grasp the strap. “You snooze, you lose.”

    “My thoughts exactly.” As he darted across the room, Jericho formed a glue-tag in his hand and loosed it at Luke’s backpack, followed by two more. He was not a moment too soon, as Luke was already beginning to pull himself to his feet. With one hand on the table, Luke yanked upward on the backpack. The G-tags struck the pack and dissolved, imbuing it with an intense attraction toward the floor beneath it. Luke had put all his not inconsiderable mass behind the grab-and-heave; just as the pack began to leave the floor, it stuck and stayed, barely long enough to break Luke’s momentum. The attraction granted by the hastily formed ’tags wasn’t all that strong and the pack pulled free, but only after Luke had put too much force into pulling on it. He let out a startled yelp as he overbalanced forward, almost going ass over teakettle before he regained his balance.

    With his mouth stretching into a grin that became a chuckle, Jericho dodged past Luke and got to the bathroom first. Grabbing the door frame, he hauled himself to a halt inside the room, just in time to hear Luke’s outraged yell. “The hell, J? That’s goddamn cheating!

    “So’s ignoring dibs,” Jericho retorted, laughing. He dropped his bag on the bathroom floor, then realized that the towel that the room service robot had left him was no doubt lying on his bed. Which meant it wasn’t in the bathroom, where he needed it to be. The trouble was, if he left the bathroom to retrieve it, Luke was guaranteed to claim the bathroom in turn. If he glue-tagged the door shut, the ’tags wouldn’t last long enough for him to get back. And while it was possible—kind of—to dry himself with glue-tags by making the water collect into a ball, it was also tedious as hell.

    G-tags. Duh.
    His solution was staring him in the face. He leaned out the bathroom door and formed a push-tag in his hand. When it was strong enough, he tossed it at Luke’s towel where it lay on the table.

    Back in Savannah (and just now, with Luke’s backpack), the ’tags had been hastily formed, leaving them barely strong enough to influence matters. But smaller items could be affected to the point that their entire mass was overcome by the faux gravitational forces involved, especially if he took his time powering the ’tags up. Case in point: Luke’s towel. And while he couldn’t steer things once he gave them direction—it wasn’t quite telekinesis, after all—he could certainly aim them.

    The G-tag hit the towel and imparted a temporary revision of local physics. Acting on this, the towel leaped off the table, moving on an upward angle toward where Jericho waited. Realizing too late what Jericho was up to, Luke made a hasty grab for the towel and missed it altogether. “Hey,” he protested. “That’s my friggin’ towel!

    Jericho dismissed the ’tag when the towel was most of the way to him and heading for the ceiling; describing a perfect parabolic arc, it landed neatly in his hand. “Mine, now,” he said cheerfully, slinging it over his shoulder. “Yours is in my room. Feel free to go grab it. Me, I’m gonna take a shower.” Whistling off-key, he closed the bathroom door and locked it. He didn’t necessarily think Luke was going to push his way in while Jericho was taking a shower—especially with Bobbi there—but there was no sense in taking chances.
     
  14. Threadmarks: Chapter Twenty-One: Personal Issues
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Personal Issues

    Wisps of steam curled around Jericho as he opened the bathroom door. He’d changed into the T-shirt and boxers that suited him as pajamas; after a good long shower and a proper wash of his hair, he felt beautiful again. Leaving his clothes in the laundry hamper, he brought his phone and wallet out into the living room with him.

    “I got a riddle,” Luke said at that moment. “What’s the difference between a cape and a dynamic?”

    Oh, shit. Answering, Jericho knew, was a bad idea. Luke’s jokes usually reached a whole new level of horrific, all by themselves. “Don’t—!” he called out warningly.

    “Uh, I’ve got no idea,” Bobbi replied. Jericho put his hand over his eyes, realizing she didn’t have enough experience with his cousin to know better. “What is it?”

    Luke’s gleeful expression matched his tone. “A dynamic can wear a cape to go superheroing.” Mercifully, he didn’t carry on with the comparison.

    “Oh, that was bad.” Bobbi facepalmed as well. “And you should feel bad.”

    I could’ve told you that already. Jericho cleared his throat. “Shower’s free,” he announced, then winced internally. Well, duh. Luke’s right there. Going to his bedroom door, he tossed his overnight bag inside and then headed for the sofa.

    “Yeah, got that.” Luke didn’t look up from the TV, which seemed to be still showing the news, but with the sound turned down. Sitting with her legs tucked up under her, Bobbi was sharing the sofa with him; an open pizza box lay between them. “Ya lucky I didn’t eat your share of th’ pizza, asshole.”

    “Don’t worry, I made him leave some for you.” Bobbi unwound the towel from her hair, allowing it to fall down and frame her face, giving her a softer, more vulnerable air. She pushed aside a strand that had draped itself over her glasses, then looked up at Jericho. “Do you realize you spent longer in there than I did?” Her tone was more curious than accusatory, leaving him to believe that she hadn’t spent much time around gay guys.

    Jericho frowned. “I didn’t spend that long … did I?” He looked over at the pizza box. Old knowledge from a long-ago summer job came back to him. Family sized pizza, takes at least half an hour to bake and deliver … and it’s not steaming anymore … “Crap. I was in there for over an hour, wasn’t I?”

    The sour look on Luke’s face was verification enough. “You sure as hell was, cuz. Don’t look so goddamn surprised. That sort of thing’s par for the friggin’ course, for you.” He rolled his eyes expressively in Bobbi’s direction. “Why’d you think I tried ta git in first? Asshole always uses all th’ hot water.” He gave Jericho a mock glare. “An’ I swear if you done that here, you’re washin’ your hair in th’ sink from now on.”

    “Whatever,” Jericho drawled, fully aware that Luke had plenty of experience to back up his complaint. “There’s still plenty of hot water, so you can quit your bellyaching.” Sketching an elaborate bow, he gestured in the general direction of the bathroom. “Now go get clean, you uncultured barbarian. And remember; the yellow stuff is called ‘soap’. You’re supposed to wash with it, not eat it.”

    Bobbi stifled an incipient giggle and held her towel out. “Uh, Luke, while you’re up, could you do me a favor and hang my towel up for me, please?” She accompanied the request with a winning smile.

    “Sure thing.” Levering himself up off the sofa, Luke accepted the towel from Bobbi and headed for the bathroom, snagging his backpack on the way. His own towel—no doubt retrieved from Jericho’s room—hung around his neck. “Outta the way. Time I showed y’all how it’s possible ta have a shower in less’n three hours.”

    Jericho stepped aside as Luke went to barge past him. “Just because you don’t know how to have a proper shower,” he said with a grin. “I left my body wash and manicure set in there, just in case you want to try a civilized way to get clean.”

    Luke’s answer was indistinct but contained elements of bite me and cold day in hell before the door banged shut. Jericho shrugged, unsurprised. “Shocker.” He turned back toward the sofa where Bobbi sat. “What sort of pizza did we get?”

    “Half and half meat-lovers and supreme,” Bobbi said. This was kind of predictable; Luke had always had a serious hankering for meat-lovers pizza. Fortunately, it was a taste that they shared. Jericho had once made the obvious joke about ‘loving meat’ while they were sharing a pizza, causing Luke to shoot soda out of his nose. Still, it hadn’t lessened his cousin’s enjoyment of the delicacy. “Uh, do you have this hassle every time you two go for a shower?”

    For a moment, Jericho didn’t get her meaning, then the penny dropped. “Ah. No, Luke’s got his place and I’ve got mine. But when we were kids and I was staying over at his place or he was staying at mine, it was always a race to see who got there first.” Settling down on the sofa, he put his phone and wallet on the sofa arm and took up a slice of pizza. After the first bite, he came to the conclusion that he had to find the place that had made it. “Damn,” he mumbled. “This is good.” ‘Good’ wasn’t really the word; his taste-buds lit up like fireflies on a summer evening as the sauces flooded his mouth.

    Bobbi nodded at the pizza box. “Try one of the supreme slices. Even if I felt like finishing them, I don’t think I could.” She slumped a little farther down on the sofa with a sigh. “The news can be so damn depressing sometimes. Oh, yeah, did you hear? Another plane went down this afternoon, out of San Diego. They’re looking for survivors now.”

    “Ah, crap,” muttered Jericho. He finished the first slice of meat-lovers and decided to take Bobbi up on her offer of the supreme. “Did they say if it was human error or mechanical problems?” It was a tragedy; this sort of thing always was. But he was hungry, and that came first.

    When Force Majeure commenced construction of the maglev across the United States, a very few far-sighted individuals had seen the writing on the wall and pulled their money out of domestic airline stocks. Unfortunately for the vast majority, the airline PR firms had done an exemplary job of keeping public faith going strong until it was far too late.

    By the time the bubble burst, the public was fully aware that the maglev could transport people almost as quickly as a jet, in at least equal levels of comfort, and at far lower prices. Share prices dropped like rocks as most of the newly savvy investors tried to unload the unwanted stocks as fast as they could. Many people lost a lot of money as nearly all the larger airlines either cut out local operations or went bankrupt, sometimes almost overnight.

    Some domestic airline companies were less affected than others, however. The maglev was good for passenger travel, but the few bulk transport cars in the system were used solely for Utopia City business. While ordinary trains could handle short-haul freight, if something needed to get across the country overnight, it usually had to go on a plane.

    Of the airlines that kept flying in-country with passengers, there were two main types. The first was where their PR firms redesigned the ‘flight experience’ to attract the jaded traveler. They cited the boredom and the requirement to walk from one maglev car to the next, and offered an alternative. Every seat was now first-class, with legroom to match, while flight attendants—male and female both—were required to meet a much higher standard of physical attractiveness. They also had to cram themselves into skimpy outfits and wait upon the passengers’ every need, to an almost embarrassing degree. For higher paying passengers there was ‘super-first’ class, for which (it was rumored) more intimate ‘mile high’ services were freely available from takeoff to landing.

    The second type were the companies that couldn’t upscale to the level of luxury needed to compete in the cut-throat new world of airline flight. They kept themselves flying on a shoestring budget, slashing costs when and where they could. Their fares were as cheap as they could afford to charge, but rumors abounded of shoddy maintenance and minimal training. Worse, bearing silent witness to these whispers, planes had begun to crash. Most were from the shoestring airlines but the super-first flights weren’t coming out of it unscathed either, a clear indication that they also had problems behind the scenes.

    Jericho considered them all idiots. It was clear to him that the day of the airliner was done, at least within the continental United States. Having traveled on the maglev, he couldn’t consider going back to a lesser form of transport. In this, he was almost certainly in agreement with the vast majority of the American public. Despite its flaws, the maglev was clearly a superior form of mass transit to air travel.

    “Too early to tell yet,” Bobbi replied. “It was a super-first flight, so I’m guessing pilot error. Those planes are fairly well maintained, or at least that’s what they say.” She grimaced. “Why couldn’t they just take the maglev?”

    Jericho shrugged and took a bite out of the slice of supreme pizza; it was almost as good as the meat lovers. “Mffbe,” he mumbled, then stopped talking until he could chew and swallow. “Uh, maybe they just wanted to get laid on the way to Chicago, or wherever they were headed.” Which was, in his mind, a stupid excuse.

    “Well, as insensitive as this is gonna sound, walking from New York to LA is still a lot better than dying in a fiery crash outside of San Diego.” Bobbi nibbled at a piece of garlic bread. “I hear the FAA shut another airline down last week. How many does that make now?”

    That newsflash only served to confirm Jericho’s poor opinion on the matter. “I have no idea. But it’s probably for their own good.” He finished off the slice of pizza, then started on a third. “I mean, this is the reason Utopia City’s got a no-fly zone around it, just in case some idiot flies a plane too close and it falls out of the sky.”

    “Or if someone decides that Utopia City’s the reason their airlines are failing and attempts to crash a jet into the Spire like they tried with the Pentagon and the White House back in ’oh-two,” Bobbi pointed out darkly. “I mean, sure, it didn’t work then and it won’t work now, but some people really are that moronic.”

    This was one of the few silver linings to come out of the 1990’s. During that era, the terror villains had run roughshod over anyone who tried to curtail their activities, as shown by their repeated retaliation against any attempt by the government to rein them in. The death of Carnifex had marked the beginning of the end of this era, though said end had been long in coming and not without its tragedies. Along the way, precautions and safeguards had been developed via hard-earned lessons gleaned from the worst of the villain attacks. Ironically enough, these had served well to ward against more mundane attacks on the United States once the terror villains had been dealt with once and for all.

    “Yeah, well, I bet the Technologist thought of that when he designed the place,” Jericho said. “Doc Iridium isn’t around anymore, but there’s new villains popping up all the time. Force Majeure would’ve made sure that someone couldn’t just drive a giant mech in and wreck the place. I mean, I know Raider’s dead too, but someone like that.” He looked at the canvas print on the wall, and shuddered, imagining the city on fire. Even knowing that the Minotaur and his ilk were all dead—some of them quite spectacularly so—the very idea of them being let loose on Utopia City was horrific.

    “Yeah, true.” Bobbi brushed the crumbs off her pajama top and dusted her hands clean, then picked up her phone from beside her. “Just going to make a call. Let my sister know I got in safely.” She tapped in the code to wake it up, then dialed a number and held the phone to her ear.

    There was a short pause, then her face lit up with a smile. “Hi, Mel. Yeah, funny thing, guess what, I’m in Utopia City.” Wincing, she held the phone away from her ear. Jericho heard the what? from the other end of the sofa. “I know you were supposed to come with me, but—yeah, I know, I know, but your boss was being a dick and you might’ve lost your job …” She paused to hold the phone away from her ear again. “But look, the press conference was today, and I know I should’ve called, but I was on the train before I really thought about it, and then I got caught up in the moment and bought a ticket straight through to Utopia City once the press conference was over.”

    Her sister must have managed to get a word in edgewise, because Bobbi went silent, except for a few interjections. “No, I’m fine. Yes, I know what my powers are like, they’re my powers. I met a couple of guys on the train—Mel! It’s not like that!” Her cheeks reddened. “They’re not like that! They’re total gentlemen. No, I said gentlemen, not sleazebags! Those words don’t even sound the same! And if anyone can tell a sleaze, it’s me, remember? We’re sharing an apartment. You’d like them. If you can get here in the next few days, you can interrogate them yourself.” She put her hand over the phone and glanced at Jericho. “You’ll be gone in a couple of days, right?”

    Despite himself, Jericho snorted with amusement. “Maybe.”

    She grinned at him and went back to the phone call. “Listen, we’re in the Oaklands, one two zero four. Oh, hey, I might just have an inside line on joining Force Majeure ahead of time. One of the guys is setting it up for me. Isn’t that fantastic? No, it’s not a scam! You know I’d be able to tell that! Look, just get over here already because holy crap, you have to see what this place is like. It’s amazing. I mean, remember that documentary we saw about flying cars that one—”

    She broke off with a frown. “Hang on, I’ve got another call coming in. I’ll call you back? Thanks, love you, mwah mwah.” With one final kissy noise, she took the phone away from her ear and looked at the screen. Her smile dimmed a little and she muttered, “Oh, joy.”

    With a sigh, she tapped the phone and held it to her ear again. When she spoke, her voice was almost as animated as when she’d been talking to her sister, but her smile was strained. “Hi, Jack. It’s so good to hear from you. How are you? No, of course I’m not angry with you. I never was angry with you.” She paused. “Just hold on a second—no, hold on—no, wait, Jack. Just a second. Please.” Covering the phone with her hand, Bobbi grimaced in apology to Jericho, then headed toward her bedroom. Once the door closed behind her, he turned the TV up a bit; the last thing he wanted was to listen in on any part of her phone call, even accidentally. An inane commercial for a furniture store began playing; he promptly ignored it, reaching across to tear off a piece of garlic bread.

    The bathroom door opened and Luke emerged. Clad in a wife-beater and sweat-pants, he looked a lot less stressed than when he went in. “Cuz,” he grunted, wandering over to the sofa. “Bobbi gone ta bed?” He dropped onto the sofa and stole the last slice of supreme pizza, quite possibly more from habit than hunger; in Jericho’s experience, Luke never turned down free food.

    “On the phone,” Jericho replied. “Boyfriend, I think. Way she was talking, anyway.” He paused, then picked up his own phone from the sofa arm. “Shit, I never called Stephen back.” He wondered how his boyfriend was taking the situation. The older man had always been a little highly strung, and to be cut off in the middle of an argument like that couldn’t have helped his mental state. As Jericho went to hold down the power button to wake it up, Luke cleared his throat. Jericho looked at him quizzically for a moment, then the penny dropped as Stephen’s betrayal caught up with him. Closing his eyes, he let his hand go slack around the phone as he slumped against the back of the sofa, wishing the world would go away.

    He felt Luke put a hand on his shoulder. “Jes’ now remembered the asshole’s been cheatin’ on ya, huh?” His cousin’s tone wasn’t vindictive or even triumphant, just … understanding.

    With a sigh, Jericho dropped the phone in his lap and put his face in his hands. “Yeah.” Just for a little while, he’d managed to block out the fact of Stephen’s infidelity, but now the pain came back in full force. What am I even gonna say to him? ‘I know what you did’? He ground the heels of his hands into his forehead, trying to get his mental processes up and running. “What the hell do I do, just call him or let him sweat? What does anyone do?”

    Picking up the remote from where Jericho had left it, Luke aimed it at the TV. “Your call. Jes’ don’t make no promises you cain’t keep, or I’ll hafta kick your ass. Krav Maga or no Krav Maga.” He hit the button to change the channel to the middle of an action movie. Someone was hanging upside down from a helicopter, firing a machine-gun at someone else. That didn’t really help to narrow it down. Something must have occurred to him, because he muted the TV again and turned toward Jericho. “You wanna know what I figger you should do?”

    Jericho gave Luke his full attention. His cousin may have grown up in the bad part of town, and he’d made one or two poor decisions in life, but Luke was still one of the most street-smart people Jericho knew. More to the point, Jericho trusted Luke to not deliberately steer him wrong. “Hit me.”

    “Don’t call him yet.” Luke gestured with the remote. “Wait’ll you see what happens with th’ interview tomorrow. Ya might bomb out, or they might offer you a full-time place right here in Utopia City. Work out what you wanna do as a superhero, then work out how Steve fits in with that. If he does. Doin’ it th’ other way ’round won’t do you no favors nohow.” He turned back to the TV and took it off mute. Dramatic music interspersed with explosions swelled through the room, leaving Jericho to his thoughts.

    Luke’s advice made a lot of sense. Jericho had no idea how to deal with the elephant in the room, but putting it off until he’d sorted out the other matters was in fact a way of handling it, at least temporarily. It’s all a matter of priorities. Once he knew where he stood with Force Majeure, he could decide what to do about Stephen. Trying to deal with one while stressing over the other was a recipe for disaster.

    With a feeling of accomplishment, Jericho settled back to watch the movie. He had no idea what was going on, but he guessed the good guy was the one rescuing the girl. I wish real life was as easy to figure out. After a tense stand-off, the bad guy was dealt with and the hero got to kiss the girl, who responded enthusiastically. Jericho didn’t blame her; the guy had abs to die for.

    “Hey, guys?” It was Bobbi who spoke, standing in the doorway to her bedroom. “Just wanted you to know, that was my boyfriend on the phone. I told him where we’re staying, so if he turns up in the next day or so, don’t be too surprised.” She bit her lip. “We didn’t exactly part on good terms. He’s had trouble understanding that it’s my power that’s been pushing us apart, and that I’m trying to fix things so we can get back together. But he’s probably coming to see me anyway, so if he does show up, be nice, okay?”

    Jericho shrugged. “Sure.” He’d only known Bobbi for a few hours, but they had more in common than he would’ve expected from a stranger on the train, mainly to do with powers-linked relationship problems. Luke got along well with her too, which was a plus in Jericho’s book. “We can definitely do that. Want us to make ourselves scarce when he shows, to give you two some privacy?”

    From the relief on Bobbi’s face, she’d been trying to figure out how to ask that herself. “That would be amazing of you, guys. Thanks. I appreciate it.”

    “So, what’s he know about us?” Luke’s question was pragmatic. “I’m guessin’ you didn’t tell him about Jericho bein’ a Mask.” The sly look he shot Jericho made it perfectly clear that he knew his cousin’s views on the terminology and didn’t give a good goddamn about them. Which, Jericho would be the first to admit, was his right and privilege. It was just also irritating as crap.

    Bobbi shrugged. “I didn’t really talk about you guys. Just that this is where he can find me, if he wants. I mean, I understand why he’s upset, but I’m allowed to have feelings about this too.” Despite her bold tone, she glanced at them, as if silently seeking permission to hold that opinion.

    “Damn right,” agreed Jericho. “It’s not your fault if your powers are screwing with your head.” It wasn’t as though his powers had made his life any easier, even if they hadn’t messed him around the way Bobbi’s powers had with her. Without powers, he wouldn’t have met Stephen, but then neither would he be facing his current drama.

    When chatting with people on social media, it was easy to tell the power poseurs (or the newly Enabled) from the real deal. The fakers usually made extravagant claims about the latest cool thing they’d done with their supposed superhuman abilities, while the actual Enabled were usually a lot more low-key about it. Life with powers, as those in the know could tell anyone willing to listen, was never smooth.

    Bobbi nodded. “Thanks again. You guys are the best. I’m going to brush my teeth and go to bed now. If you’re going to keep watching TV, do me a favor and keep it down?” Her smile, though genuine, was tired.

    “Well, I was about to catch some sleep myself,” Jericho noted. He waved a hand at the TV. “This movie’s about done. Just knock on my door when you’re finished in the bathroom, okay?” He flicked push-tags at his sneakers where they lay on the floor. Like the towel, they were light enough that the permeating field was concentrated enough to overcome local gravity altogether. They leaped off the floor, and he caught them both on the rise. Turning, he saw both Luke and Bobbi looking oddly at him. “What?”

    “That, cuz, is the single friggin’ laziest thing I ever seen you do, an’ that includes ridin’ on the escalator,” Luke declared. “You couldn’t bend down an’ pick ’em up like a normal person?” He was trying to maintain a tone of offended propriety, but Jericho was reasonably sure he could hear undertones of intense jealousy.

    “I’m sorry, Jericho, but I have to side with Luke.” The smile on Bobbi’s face belied her words. “Surely you don’t do that all the time when you’re at home?” Amusement danced in her eyes.

    Jericho tried to imagine Stephen’s expression if he used his powers inside the apartment. “Yeah, nope. I don’t. But I do have my tryout tomorrow, so I’ve gotta get in all the practice I can.” He glanced across the room, trying to calculate angles. “Hey, you guys want to see lazy? Check this out.” He dropped one shoe on the floor, then sent a ’tag across the room to nudge his bedroom door open. “Bobbi, you might want to step aside a bit. Just in case.”

    Eyes widening, Bobbi did as she was told. Then she looked between the doorway and Jericho, and backed up a little farther, pausing halfway inside the bathroom doorway. “Is this okay?” She had her hand on the door handle, ready to slam it shut at a moment’s notice; Jericho approved of her caution.

    “That’ll do.” He worked his fingers a little, then crafted a push-tag, his eyes flicking back and forth between the door and his shoe. While he had a certain innate understanding of the forces and vectors involved, he wasn’t particularly skilled at this specific application of his powers. Taking a deep breath, he launched the G-tag at the shoe.

    It hit the target cleanly and dissolved, imparting gravitational information to the footwear. The shoe leaped from the floor at the appropriate elevation for reaching his bedroom door, but he’d somehow managed to get the angle way off. Whipping past Luke’s nose, it bounced off the wall, soared over the counter, ricocheted off the microwave, then came to rest with a dull thud somewhere within the kitchenette.

    “Well, that was impressive, for an extremely narrow definition of the word.” Bobbi’s voice held amusement as she ventured from the bathroom door. “If, for instance, you had a grudge against your sneaker, that was very well done. Otherwise, not so much.” With an airy finger-wave, she disappeared back into the bathroom.

    “Great.” Jericho’s heart sank. Carrying the other sneaker, he headed into the kitchenette, to find his shoe protruding from the trash can. As he pulled it out, he glumly hoped that the interview would not be predicated on pulling off trick shots like that. “You okay there, Luke?”

    “Just goddamn dandy.” Rising from the sofa, Luke strolled almost nonchalantly over to the dividing counter, and leaned on it with his elbows. “Just between you an’ me, you know what’s gonna happen if you ever pull a stupid-ass stunt like that around me again?” His expression was as mild as his tone. It didn’t fool Jericho in the slightest.

    “I’m guessing something pretty drastic?” Almost instinctively, Jericho tried to hide the offending item of footwear behind his back. While he knew Luke wasn’t about to do anything to hurt him, this didn’t make him feel as complacent as it might have. Besides, he felt bad enough about the near miss as it was.

    “Yeah, drastic. What I’m gonna do is take that goddamn shoe, an’ shove it so far up your ass that you’ll be able ta floss your goddamn teeth with the laces.” Luke’s delivery was quiet and measured, to the point that Jericho couldn’t be totally certain he wasn’t putting on an act. “Ya nearly took my head off with the goddamn thing.”

    Jericho couldn’t work out whether Luke was genuinely angry or just horsing around. It sounded like a hundred fake threats his cousin had issued over the years, but this time had been a little closer than most. He thought he saw a twinkle in Luke’s eye, so he took a chance. “Yeah, well, your head’s a lot thicker than that shoe and you know it.”

    For a long moment, Luke held the forbidding expression, then it cracked as he let out a bark of laughter. “Friggin’ asshole.” Standing up straight, he reached across the counter and slugged Jericho on the shoulder. “Seriously, don’t do that again. I thought the goddamn thing was gonna go right up my nose.”

    “Do my best.” Frowning, Jericho brought the shoe around from behind his back and examined it. “Not sure if the G-tag hit it off-center or if the aerodynamics were out. Either way, I’m gonna leave off the trick shots ’til I know more about what I’m doing.” Which wasn’t a bad idea, he decided. “Though it would’ve been hella cool if I’d actually gotten it in my bedroom.”

    “Well, duh.” Luke grinned at him. “This here’s how normal folks do it.” Before Jericho could react, Luke had snatched the shoe from him and hurled it in through the open bedroom door. “See? Worked first time. And I didn’t have to guess.” Turning back toward the sofa, he scratched his head. “Anyways, I gotta work out how this thing goes so’s I can get me some sleep tonight.” He gave Jericho a considering look. “You better fuck off ta bed too. Big day tomorrow an’ all.”

    “Yup, just as soon as …” Jericho paused as Bobbi emerged from the bathroom. “… that, I guess. Night, Bobbi.”

    “Night, guys.” Giving them a nod and a smile, Bobbi headed for her bedroom.

    As the door closed behind her, Jericho went to the bathroom and set about brushing his teeth. That done, he rinsed his face and wiped it dry with his towel. On exiting the bathroom, he saw Luke in the process of examining the sofa bed. “Need a hand?” he asked.

    “Nah, I’ll be fine. Night, cuz.”

    “Night.” On entering his bedroom and closing the door, Jericho found his bed already made up, as the robo-maid had reported. More curiously, there was a TV-style remote on his nightstand. Okay, that’s weird. Somehow, he didn’t think the Oaklands would be so careless as to leave duplicate remotes in their apartments. Picking the device up, he looked it over. For all he knew, the bed might’ve had a vibrating function, or maybe projected holographic pornography into the air. This was Utopia City; he couldn’t rule anything out.

    To his minor disappointment, the buttons were the same as on a standard TV remote. When he pressed the power button, a whirring noise became audible. Turning, he watched as panels slid aside from a flat-screen the same size as the one in the living room. “Huh. That’s pretty cool.”

    He hit the button again to close the panels, then put the remote down and climbed into bed. Lying back, he turned on his phone and took it out of airplane mode. Within a few seconds, it started pinging. When the alert tones ceased (taking longer than he’d hoped and less time than he’d feared) he checked his messages. There were seventeen missed calls and approximately four thousand text messages, all from Stephen, which served to wipe the smile off his face.

    He didn’t bother to listen to the phone messages; it was a good bet that he knew how they’d go anyway. The texts were variations on a theme, testing the waters with anger, guilt, whining and pleading. One by one, he deleted them, then sent back a single message.

    ’Not going to talk to you about this right now, Stephen. I’ll call you after midday tomorrow.’

    By that time, he hoped, he’d be done with the Force Majeure interview, and be able to worry about what to do regarding Stephen.

    As an afterthought, he checked to make sure his phone had updated to local time, then set the alarm. Turning off the light, he closed his eyes.
     
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  15. Threadmarks: Chapter Twenty-Two: Rooftop Encounter
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    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Rooftop Encounter

    Jericho opened his eyes and stared up at the darkened ceiling, a sense of inevitability nagging at him. While his Prodigy rating would let him get by with five hours of sleep on any given night, he could also sleep the night through if he chose. He had opted for the latter, leaving it to the phone alarm to wake him in time to make it to the interview. His Prodigy rating was also supposed to allow him to drop off to sleep in record time if he had to, but this wasn’t happening. Forty minutes in, he was still stubbornly awake, and he was afraid he knew exactly what the matter was.

    Five hours was his benchmark but he could get by on far less, especially under high-stress situations. He’d crash and sleep like the dead once the crisis was resolved but while it was ongoing, he was in no danger of oversleeping. If his Prodigy instincts demanded that he be awake to solve a problem, then he was awake.

    The trouble was, the situation with Stephen was by definition high-stress, and his blithely worded text message didn’t seem to be alleviating his inner turmoil. There was something going on that his back-brain figured he hadn’t thought all the way through. Try as he might, he couldn’t get a grip on it while lying in bed. No matter what he did, his brain just went in circles.

    With a put-upon sigh, he pulled the sheet off himself and rolled over to put his feet on the floor. Moving slowly so as to minimize the creak of his bedsprings, he came to his feet and moved toward the door. I can’t handle this. I don’t know what to do. If he kept circling the drain like this, he might be awake for the interview in the morning, but he knew he would be in no way competent for it.

    When he opened the bedroom door, he discovered to his surprise that the living-room TV was still on. Luke was lounging back on the sofa—which he still hadn’t converted into a bed—watching it with the sound turned down to a murmur. He saw Luke’s head turn, then the TV muted altogether.

    “Thought you was goin’ ta bed, cuz.” Luke’s voice was a soft rumble in the color-shot dimness.

    “I thought so too,” Jericho grumbled. “Can’t sleep. Too much to think about.” He indicated the sofa. “Thought you were going to fold that thing out.”

    Luke’s shrug was visible even in the half-light. “Maybe later. Not tired yet. You seen th’ movie channels in this place, cuz? There’s stuff I ain’t never even heard of before.”

    “I’ll have a look after the interview tomorrow,” Jericho decided. Padding into the kitchenette, he located the cupboard holding the few glasses, and filled one at the sink. The cool water was refreshingly welcome, but it didn’t calm his disordered thoughts.

    Leaving the glass on the side of the sink, he went back to his bedroom. Inside his overnight bag was a black nylon satchel, which he retrieved and unzipped. One item at a time, he donned the costume that lay within, starting with the cloth mask that that covered the top of his head and came down to his cheekbones; his hair was pulled through the hole at the back to make a ponytail. On went the dark jeans and long-sleeved shirt, and the black pullover on top of that. The knee-high soft leather boots were sized for women, but he needed the flexibility they afforded and they were very comfortable to wear. Next came the specially prepared jacket, then the utility belt. The gloves he pulled on were made of thin leather, more to protect his hands than to inflict any kind of extra damage with a punch. He focused on each item in turn as he put it on, mainly to make sure he didn’t forget anything. As an afterthought, he slid his MagCard into an inside pocket of his jacket. Don’t want to lock myself out, after all. The satchel, rolled up with its medium-length shoulder-strap wrapped around it, went into a long pouch at the back of his utility belt.

    Part of what made his jacket special was a series of curved 3D-printed plastic plates sewn into the lining, placed so that they overlapped no matter how he moved. It wouldn’t stop a bullet, but he’d already made sure it worked against a knife. The other part was the one good use that he’d found for spandex. He’d never wear it as a costume, but he had a double-thick layer of the elastic cloth stitched on to each side of his jacket. It was set up to stretch between his wrist and his hip on each side, with a tail of sorts hanging down farther. Each tail had a sturdy strap at the bottom end, which he hooked onto his belt for the time being to keep them out of the way.

    When he checked the bedroom window, he found it wasn’t designed to open any more than was necessary to admit night-time breezes, and it had a sturdy screen on the outside. Front door it is, then. He hadn’t wanted to disturb Luke in case his cousin had gotten around to folding out the sofa bed and getting some sleep, but it seemed like he had no choice.

    As he let himself out through his bedroom door, he saw that Luke was still watching TV. His cousin glanced around again, then did a double-take. “Jesus shit, cuz,” he whispered. “You goin’ out?”

    Jericho nodded. “Guess so. I just need to get a breath of fresh air. I’ll be back soon.”

    “That really a good idea?” asked Luke, concern obvious in his voice. “It’s a whole new city out there. It ain’t your turf. You don’t know nothin’ about it.”

    “If I get lost, I’ll just turn on the locator for your phone,” Jericho whispered with a grin. “I’ll be ten minutes. Out and back. I just gotta clear my head.”

    Luke appeared to take this at face value. “Sho’nuff. You be sure an’ take care now, cuz.”

    “Always do.” Jericho shared a fist-bump with his cousin on the way past, then went to the front door and eased it open. Nobody was in the corridor; stepping through, he let the door shut silently then considered his next move. I could’ve just gone out and gotten something to eat. Why did I costume up?

    But even as he asked the question, he knew the answer. The knowledge had been in the back of his mind all along. He needed to get out in the fresh air, on the rooftops, to truly be able to clear his head. Only then could he come to a final decision on what to do about Stephen. To get up that high, he needed to use his powers. And in order to use his powers without outing himself, the costume had been needed. It was good to know that his mind was still capable of working things through when he had no idea what to do next.

    Moving with swift, sure strides, he made his way to the end of the corridor, where a closer examination revealed that the window was set on a vertical swivel system to allow it to open, though it was currently closed. Well, well, well. Looks like Bobbi was right, and Oaklands really is set up for out-of-town Enabled to get in and out unnoticed. Let’s see now … Leaning close, he began to check out what exactly held the window shut. If I wanted my guests to be able to come and go unseen, I’d leave a hidden escape hatch in plain sight.

    Moments later, his hunch proved correct. There was a MagCard reader discreetly concealed in a recess in the window-frame; swiping his card over it caused the window to swivel open like a revolving door. Even more interestingly, there was an equally discreetly placed ladder outside the window. This was no doubt intended to perform double duty as a fire escape in a pinch; however, it also went upward toward the roof. Climbing out onto the ladder, he swiped the reader he found on the outside, causing the window to swivel closed behind him. After tucking the MagCard away again, he began to climb steadily. He was halfway up the ladder when he realized that the MagCard had worked even through his glove. Whatever biometrics it used, he decided, it didn’t depend on anything so crude as a fingerprint scanner.

    As he clambered up onto the roof, he saw a large glowing green and brown object hanging over the building. For a second he froze, wondering what the hell he’d just encountered. Then his forebrain caught up and informed him that the blocky object was just a holographic sign spelling out ‘OAKLANDS’ in twenty-foot-tall letters for all to see. Beneath the name of the establishment was the word ‘VACANCY’, in a smaller font.

    Well, damn. That’s what I call advertising. Allowing his heart rate to go back to something approaching normality, he looked around appreciatively. It was better up here, the cool breeze ruffling his ponytail and doing a lot to soothe his turbulent thoughts. The holographic sign threw out a muted glow, vaguely illuminating nearby buildings. Somewhere in the distance, a siren wailed briefly. He heard the thrumming as a flying cab went by, not so far away. Running lights blinked on and off, stitching its progress across the night sky. He followed it with his eyes until it went out of sight, then he tried to orient himself with regards to the city. Unfortunately, although he could see a lot of the skyline, he wasn’t able to determine where the major landmarks were, such as the maglev terminal or even the Spire.

    I must be too low down. Need to get higher. Looking around, he picked out the tall building he’d spotted from the street earlier—it looked like an apartment block—then started in that direction across the rooftop. As he came close to the edge of the roof, he noted that a couple of lower buildings stood between him and his destination. Pulling the spandex tails from his belt, he leaned down and wrapped the straps around his legs just above his knees, buckling them firmly into place. Then he backed up a ways and ran toward the roof edge. In the last few yards, he accelerated to a sprint, spread his arms to stretch the spandex taut, and leaped over the edge.

    For a normal person, the spandex wouldn’t have had all that much effect; the surface area thus gained was less than that of a commercial wingsuit. A normal person, however, wouldn’t have first been able to reduce the effect of gravity on them—and everything they were wearing—to one-tenth normal. With his downward acceleration now a lazy three point two feet per second per second, the broad swathe of spandex worked just fine as a set of gliding wings.

    His ears teased by the whisper of passing wind, he looked down at the buildings—apparently part of the larger Oaklands complex—sliding by underneath. Gliding like this was the closest he would ever come to real flight. He’d tried applying push-tags to himself for extra lift, but they didn’t seem to be able to work on anything he’d altered the gravity on. No matter how hard he worked at it, he always had to come back down to earth in the end. Which, he supposed, worked well as a description of life in general.

    The taller building before him was getting closer, and he was still moving with most of the speed gleaned from his headlong sprint. Eyes narrowed with concentration, he sent four glue-tags arrowing ahead, then prepared himself. Seconds before impact, he brought his arms up and his legs down, changing his angle of attack as he allowed gravity to have more of an effect on him. His forward momentum slowed, letting him hit the wall just right.

    As opposed to the mishap with the shoe, he’d been dead on with the placements of the G-tags. They were right there to hand (and foot) when he impacted, securing him to the side of the edifice. It was built of neither concrete nor steel, as far as he could tell. The material was smooth and gently contoured, with the occasional window set into it. There were no visible joins, and his G-sense could pick out no structural beams within it. The outer surface was a light-gray material with a somehow-familiar hexagonal pattern layered on to it.

    For just a moment, he wondered what it reminded him of. But now was neither the time nor the place for his innate curiosity to come out and play. The purpose of this rooftop-run was to clear his head and figure out what to do, not to investigate the local architecture. With that in mind, he started up the side of the building, creating and dismissing glue-tags with the ease of long practice. Gravity may have been the enemy of ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the human race; for him, it was a trusted ally.

    It took him perhaps thirty seconds to ascend the seven stories to the top of the building. On the way up, he passed three balconies, each with a discreet set of mesh screens around it. To keep out people with powers like mine, no doubt. The third balcony held a couple, who were sitting and drinking what looked like wine while enjoying the city lights. They saw him and gave a friendly wave. Feeling that the night couldn’t get much more surreal, he waved back. No words were exchanged; he kept climbing until he reached the top.

    Instead of being flat as he’d expected, the roof continued upward in a step-pyramid configuration that had him puzzled, until he saw the hexagonal texture continuing onto the rooftop. The angle of the slope recalled the umbrellas in the Oaklands courtyard, and the pieces clicked into place. “Solar cells,” he said out loud. “That’s what they’ve gotta be.” It kind of made sense. Even if Utopia City was able to produce electricity so easily that it could afford to give it out for free, why waste a potential energy source like the sun? Shaking his head at the amount of foresight that had gone into constructing the very buildings with solar collectors built into the walls and roof, he turned to look out over the city.

    The breeze up here was rather brisk and had more of a snap to it. Even though he’d been climbing steadily, he was glad of his jacket. And now he could see across to where the Spire rose in the distance. Just as in the canvas print, it was illuminated from all sides, a visible message of hope shining across Utopia City. In a very real way, it was Utopia City.

    The Spire itself bore no holograms; it needed none to show how impressive it was. However, they showed up here and there on the buildings surrounding it; some were static while others moved back and forth. He was too far away to see them clearly, but the overall effect gave Utopia City a fantasy air that he’d never seen anywhere else.

    Seating himself on the roof-edge, he stared across the vast gulf between him and the culmination of his dreams. He’d started this journey armed with high hopes and idealism, seeking to bring a cherished dream to fruition. Even the initial break with Stephen was something that had an endpoint; three days, and he would be home once more.

    But then came the revelation that his trust had already been betrayed, that any such triumphant return would reunite him with an unfaithful lover. Unable to go back and confront Stephen, both because he was already committed to moving forward and because he had no idea how to fix this (or even if it was fixable) he had continued on to Utopia City.

    Now the looming specter of his return to Savannah (and Stephen) had him conflicted. On the one hand was his compassion and sense of fairness. All people were flawed; he knew this to be true, even of himself. Especially of himself. Guiltily, he thought back to his secretive fantasies about Relentless. That was never going to happen; he knew it for a fact. But if the celebrated hero ever did make a move on Jericho … would I be strong enough to resist? Even as a pure hypothetical, he had the uncomfortable feeling he knew what the answer would be. While this did not excuse Stephen his infidelities, it certainly went a long way toward helping Jericho to understand them.

    On the other hand, there was the anger; an anger and a pain which cut bone-deep. I gave him everything that was me, and he stabbed me in the back while smiling to my face. Not even the knowledge of Stephen’s beating at Luke’s hands made him feel any better about that. After all, Stephen had chosen to do what he did, and he might choose to do it again.

    Apart from all that … aside from the nagging feeling that I know I never cheated on him, but under different circumstances it might’ve been me and the certainty that I can’t trust him anymore was yet another aspect which Jericho stubbornly refused to call the ‘third hand’. Despite everything else, Jericho had an undeniable emotional attachment to the man. This was possibly what fueled much of the anger. Hate, after all, was often called the flip-side to love. But as much as he wanted to deny it, there it was; illogical, inconvenient, and impossible to crush.

    He closed his eyes and took another long breath of the chill night air, letting it bottom out in his lungs. Slowly, he let it out again, feeling the knot of tension in his chest loosen slightly. By the time his lungs were empty once more, he thought he had a solution. It might not be the perfect solution to the situation. He wasn’t even sure that such a thing even existed. It was, however, a solution he could implement, and maybe even make stick.

    By the time I talk to him next, the interview will be done, and I’ll know what’s happening with Force Majeure. I’ll give him the chance to come clean of his own accord. If he doesn’t, then we’re done. Finished. If he does, and he promises to make amends instead of offering excuses or denials … then I’ll think about taking him back. Possibly.

    Slowly, he nodded to himself. Hopefully, that would work. Punching muggers, he decided, is a lot easier than this crap. I wonder if other heroes have these problems too. He couldn’t really imagine it. What were the odds of this specific set of circumstances cropping up at just the wrong time? Shaking his head, he stood up and dusted off the seat of his pants. Guess it’s time I went back and tried to get some sl—

    “Stop right there.” The voice was feminine, firm, and accompanied by a double click-clack which sounded very much like a gun of some sort being readied. Overlaid on it was an oddly familiar thrumming noise. It was also coming from behind Jericho, which was a good trick, because there was nothing behind him to stand on but a lot of empty air. He froze, on the principle that people giving direct orders from impossible locations probably had a way to back up said orders.

    “I’ve stopped,” he said, somewhat redundantly. “Can I turn around?” Distantly, he was pleased to note that he’d remembered to use his ‘G-Man voice’, where he dropped his tone by about an octave and spoke with more emphasis than he did while in plain clothes. At his sides, he cupped his hands and generated a pair of glue-tags; while the unknown person was talking like a hero, it was always possible to get a false positive. Commencing a fight for his life while unarmed was a good way to die, very quickly.

    However, it was also possible that this was merely a case of mistaken identity. Hero-meets-hero fights weren’t quite as common as popular culture made them out to be, but they still happened from time to time. His G-tags were reasonably non-lethal as far as powers went, so even if he had to attack a hero with them, there would be no lasting harm. He really, really hoped that he wouldn’t have to do that though, even in self-defense. No matter the outcome, bad feelings had a way of lingering. It had only happened to him once, and Pickup was still pissed at him.

    “Go ahead,” the woman said coolly. “No stupid moves. What are you doing up here?” She sounded bored and a little impatient, not the best combination of attitudes he would have picked for someone potentially pointing a weapon at him. The thrumming noise got a little louder, tickling at his memory. That sounds almost like taxi lifters. Something impinged on the edge of his G-sense; it was fairly dense, much larger than a person, and flying. It was also right where the voice had come from.

    Slowly, he turned around. It was dark, but the glow of the city lights was adequate to illuminate what was before him. The vehicle hovering five or six yards away from the building was not in fact a taxi, though it was flying on ducted fans. It had one lifter at the front and two at the back, with a chopper-style saddle in between. While the handlebars were quite possibly just there for show, they indisputably turned it into something that would have taken Luke’s general ‘I want one’ response and refined it into a burning passion; a flying motorcycle. Jericho didn’t even ride that much, and he wanted one.

    But what truly caught Jericho’s attention wasn’t the motorbike; it was the rider. The woman—her flight suit didn’t quite have enough built-in technology to hide that particular fact—would’ve been instantly recognizable even if Jericho hadn’t spent time looking up Force Majeure. Through sheer force of will, he managed to not let his jaw drop in amazement. “You’re Transit!” he blurted.

    “So noted,” Transit replied, not sounding particularly impressed. The red and silver color scheme on her flying motorbike was repeated on her flight suit as well as her helmet. City lights were reflected in her full-face visor; he could see the shifting of the reflections as she tilted her head slightly. Paired gun muzzles, mounted just forward of the handlebars, were trained on Jericho. He noted absently that each time she moved her helmet, they twitched in response. “You still haven’t answered my question.”

    “Uh, I’m a hero,” Jericho explained hastily. “I’m called G-Man. I just came up here to … well, work my way through a personal problem. To find a solution.” He let the G-tags dissolve into nothingness; while he was sure Transit wouldn’t initiate lethal force at first contact, he didn’t want her thinking he was about to attack.

    To his relief, the gun-muzzles abruptly angled skyward with a click-click-click as something in the mechanism disengaged. “Well, that definitely sounds like ‘brooding on a rooftop’ to me,” Transit replied, her voice becoming somewhat less hostile. “When villains have personal problems, they generally end up taking it out on their minions, not brooding. Did you get it figured out?” She did something with the controls and the sky-bike swiveled on its axis, skating sideways until it was mere feet from the roof-edge. The thrumming from the lifters was louder now, but he could still clearly hear her voice over it.

    This close, Jericho could see the distorted reflection of his masked face in her helmet visor. “I think so.” He glanced around. “Am I doing something wrong by being up here?” Normally, he knew that such a thing wouldn’t be the case, but he’d already encountered more than one set of odd protocols in the rules that Utopia City worked by. It wouldn’t be smart to assume that these were the only ones.

    Transit replied with a snort that set his fears at ease. “Hardly. Night-time roof-running is practically a prerequisite for being part of the local Enabled scene. I just got a report that a guy in black was climbing this building, so I decided to swing by and check it out. Though I don’t recognize your name or your logo. New in town?”

    Holy shit, Transit is making conversation with me! With the strong feeling that she could read his thoughts off his face, he did his best to keep the fanboy-squee out of his voice. “Ah, yeah, actually. I got in today. I’ve applied to join, uh, your team. Force Majeure.” She knows what team she’s on, you idiot! “My interview’s tomorrow morning.”

    “Hm.” Her voice was non-committal. “Well, if you’re going to go patrolling, we consider it a matter of courtesy to notify the police first, so this sort of misunderstanding doesn’t happen.” The reprimand was delivered so mildly that he barely registered it as such. “In any case, welcome to Utopia. See you at the interview. Don’t be late.”

    Shit, if I don’t come back with proof I met her, Luke’s gonna call bullshit on this whole thing. “W-wait.” Jericho forced the word out as he half-raised his hand to stop her.

    The sky-bike, already turning away, stopped. She looked back at him. “What is it?” He was sure she was rolling her eyes. “Let me guess. An autograph?”

    “Um, can I … can I just get a photo of you, on your bike? It’s for my cousin Luke, not me.” He knew he would totally keep a copy anyway. “He loves bikes and cars, and this would utterly blow his mind.”

    “Hmm.” She paused, turning her helmet to look from side to side. “The lighting’s terrible up here. You wouldn’t get any details.”

    “Oh.” His heart sank. “Sorry, I—”

    “You’re coming in for an interview tomorrow? I’ll see what I can do then. No promises.” With a sudden surge of noise, the lifters tilted forward and the flying motorcycle accelerated away into the night sky. For a moment, her darkened form occluded part of the Spire, and then all he could see was her running lights.

    Seconds after that, the thrumming had died away into the distance, and Jericho was alone in the night once more.
     
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  16. Threadmarks: Chapter Twenty-Three: Night Patrol
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Night Patrol

    "Holy shit,” he muttered. “Holy shit. That was Transit. I just got checked out by Transit.” He heard the faintest hint of a high-pitched incredulous giggle in his own voice and tamped it down hard. The very last thing he wanted to do was hit that high note again tomorrow. Especially when he met Relentless. I’m a superhero too, he told himself firmly. Just like them. I mean, not exactly like them, but kind of like them. They’re what I want to be, someday.

    Taking a deep breath, which did very little to slow his still-racing heartbeat, he turned toward where the Oaklands’ holo-sign glowed in the darkness and prepared to leap from the roof. Then he stopped and looked around. I’m already out here, he told himself. I’ve got a couple of hours before I’ve got to be in bed, and I know damn well I’ll be too keyed up to go to sleep right away if I head back now. Why not do some patrolling? A grin spread across his face. Transit as much as told me that I’m basically a member of the Utopia City Enabled scene now. May as well act the part.

    Recalling the Force Majeure hero’s words, he reached into the pouch on his utility belt that held his prepaid phone. It woke up in a few seconds, and he retrieved the number for non-emergency police contact. Taking a deep breath, he pressed the call icon.

    It only rang for a few seconds before someone picked up. “Utopia City Police Department,” a bored feminine voice replied. “Sergeant Finlay speaking. How may I help you?”

    “Uh, yeah, hi, this is G-Man. I’m an independent hero and I just wanted to let you know that I’ll be patrolling in Utopia City tonight, in the Oaklands area.” He had to fight to hold down the grin that threatened to spread across his face.

    It may have been his imagination, but the voice seemed to become more alert. “Ah, okay. G-Man, is it? Can we have a basic description of your powerset and costume to pass on to our units?”

    “Sure,” he said. “I’m a prodigy/dynamic with gravity control; I get around by gliding. I’m wearing a black cloth mask over the top of my head, a black jacket with the letter ‘G’ on the back in white, black … well, basically, I’m wearing all black.” He stopped short of telling her he was white. Back in Savannah, it would’ve been a notable detail. Here, he hoped that wasn’t the case.

    If it was, Sergeant Finlay didn’t seem to think it worth commenting on. Faintly, he heard typing noises. “Okay, that’s G-Man, DPR prodigy/dynamic, gravity powers, gliding, black costume with a jacket, white ‘G’ on the back. Patrolling in the Oaklands area. Thanks for the heads-up, buddy. I’ll pass the word on. Take care, and good hunting.”

    “Uh, yeah, thanks,” he said, then shut the call off. Again, the sensation of unreality washed over him. His interactions with the Savannah police department had been semi-cordial at best, with the notable exception of Detective Villanova. It had never occurred to him to call them up to tell him he was on patrol, and they’d never asked him to. Different city, different rules.

    Turning, he moved to a different part of the roof, overlooking the street ten stories below. About a block to the west, the canal emerged from behind another tall building then meandered away into the distance. Squinting, he could see slender illuminated metal arches, their reflections glinting on the dark water, in between the rustic footbridges that spanned the canal. It was hard to make out more detail from this distance, but there seemed to be single-story restaurants and takeaway shops fronting the canal on both sides. In fact, the place where they’d gotten the pizza from was probably down there somewhere. He wasn’t quite hungry again yet, but it wouldn’t hurt to find out where the pizza place was, just in case they felt like dining out sometime before they left Utopia City. That guy from the train station said something about living near the market. I wonder if that’s what he was talking about?

    That thought in mind, he stepped up to the edge of the roof. As he leaned over to look straight down at the sidewalk, a wide grin spread across his face. For what he had planned, a clear drop was essential. There was nothing in his way; no awnings, no signs, not even a low-flying bird.

    Adrenaline singing in his ears, he leaned forward. With his hyper-awareness of his own balance, he knew exactly where the point of no return was; in an instant, it came and went. Even then he could have pulled back but he chose not to, deliberately allowing it to happen. With the slightest push from his toes, he kicked off from the edge of the building and fell from the roof. Suppressing his slow-fall ability, he let himself plummet head-first toward the ground, feeling the wind-rush build up around his ears. For nearly two seconds he was at the mercy of gravity, just like every other person on the planet. Then he brought his personal gravity down to one-tenth normal and spread his arms wide.

    As the wind filled the gliding wings and turned the death-dive into a swoop between the streetlights, he pressed his lips together to contain a yell of exhilaration. Until the momentum ran out, he could pretend he was flying. But even the sheer rush that filled his entire being from top to toe still paled before the feeling of amazement he had experienced just moments before, speaking to a core member of Force Majeure. And if things worked out, he wouldn’t merely be speaking to them: he’d be working with them.

    The cool night air buoyed him up, the slipstream making the tails of his mask flap gently as he glided down the street between the buildings. He watched as a police car slowly cruised along the street below. Directly ahead was a four-way intersection and then the canal, with the roadway leading in between two buildings. Like the boardwalk that Jericho could now see lined the canal’s banks, the road ended abruptly at the bank of the canal, with only warning bollards to save an unwary driver from disaster. The road continued from the other side of the canal, but there was a good thirty-foot span of canal in between. Jericho was pretty sure that magnetic levitation wouldn’t lift the car over the bollards. Neither would it work over water.

    At least, he didn’t think it would. The cops in the car seemed to believe otherwise, because the car slid silently through the intersection, heading directly for the bollards. Just as catastrophe seemed imminent, the bollards retracted into the road and he saw a rippling movement in the water ahead of the car. In a broad swathe leading from one bank to the other, the water heaved up and flowed to each side, revealing a metal grille just above the surface of the canal. The cop car never slowed or showed any sign that things were abnormal; keeping to the same steady pace, it cruised across the canal and onto the road on the other side. Behind it, the grille sank once more into the depths of the water as the bollards extended upwards again. Swirling currents arose, but these settled just as quickly. In seconds, he couldn’t even tell that the bridge had been there.

    Wow. Just wow. He wasn’t sure what impressed him more; the retracting bollards, the submerging bridge, or the cool of the cops themselves to be completely certain that both things would work exactly when they needed it. I know I’d be clenching up just a little.

    Descending slowly past the sixty-foot mark, he glided through the intersection. The canal lay ahead, lined on either side by restaurants and cafés. As he neared it, he took more notice of the slender metal arches spanning the canal. Occurring every thirty yards or so, they rose to about fifty feet above the water and seemed more decorative than anything else, with holographic murals of vines and flowers glowing in the night. While admittedly beautiful, he really couldn’t see the point of them until he spotted what they were supporting. From the center-point of each arch, a single strut projected downward about three feet, where it attached onto a reflective cylindrical pipe about eight inches in diameter.

    Even then he couldn’t figure out what it was, until the resemblance to the maglev rail jogged his memory. Back in the station, they’d seen signs indicating the presence of a monorail. There was nothing else this could be. Banking gently to the left, he slid in parallel to the path of the rail, admiring the holographic decorations on the archways, each one different. The canal curved around to the right just up ahead, and he banked to follow that as well. Food smells drifted up to him from below, and he thought he heard soft music. There were no shouts or arguments; the occasional snatch of conversation went by, dozens of feet below.

    A flash of movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention, so he turned his head briefly to glance behind him. There weren’t many other things that would be moving at this height, the most likely among them being whatever it was that rode the rail he was gliding alongside. Sure enough, a monorail was just rounding the turn of the canal. Not unlike the maglev, there were three linked passenger cars, though they hung under the rail instead of riding on top. The method of locomotion was still the same; twinned brackets held curved metal pads that didn’t quite touch the rail, propelling the train along with just a resonant hum to mark its passing. There was a gap between the pads to allow the support struts to pass between them. The monorail was much smaller than even a single maglev passenger car, each section consisting of a stubby cylinder about seven feet in diameter and twenty-five feet long, with half a dozen windows visible on the sides that he could see.

    Jericho’s top sustainable gliding speed was about twenty miles per hour, which was impressive considering the singular lack of aerodynamics inherent in the human body. His speed right then was a quite respectable fifteen miles per, but the monorail was going maybe twice that. Assured that it wasn’t going to hit him, he turned his gaze ahead again. There’s probably a station up ahead somewh— “Whoa!” The yell was dragged from his throat as the next support arch loomed large in his vision, the bright holographic colors coming straight for his face.

    Pulling his arms back to his sides, he reversed the effect of his slow-fall as drastically as he could. Scientifically speaking, he didn’t gain mass; instead, he vastly magnified gravity’s hold on him. Three point two feet per second squared became three hundred twenty feet per second squared. He dropped, as the saying went, like a rock. Specifically, like a rock under the effect of ten times Earth’s gravity. The increased downward movement let him miss the arch by mere feet, but it was a mixed blessing; now he was plummeting toward the canal, forty feet below.

    Uninformed people would have decided that the danger wasn’t so great; even at ten gravities, water was still water. Except that it wasn’t. Under his current gravitational regime, he had less than half a second before he hit the water with an impact equivalent to falling four hundred feet onto concrete. Even if he survived the experience, he would then be unconscious, injured and at extreme risk of drowning.

    Half a second, however, was far more time than he needed. As easily as he’d increased the effect of gravity on himself, he diminished it again just as fast. His effective weight went back to ten percent of normal, causing his death-dive to slow dramatically. Arms spread, he caught the air once more on the gliding surfaces, bringing himself back to almost level flight. As the monorail hummed by overhead, he banked toward the next support arch after the one he’d almost hit. Glue-tags shot out and he anchored himself to the leaning cylindrical pole without even thinking about it. The holographic vines continued to glow unabated even as they curled around and over his fingers, so he ignored them for the moment.

    It was fortunate that he’d done this so often because the near miss had left him badly shaken, his heart hammering. He was good at what he did, but part of that was due to his knowledge of Savannah’s rooftops and streets. Here he was the novice once more, at least as far as negotiating the terrain was concerned. And just as with Savannah, some of the terrain was dangerous, and it was up to him to keep his wits about him until he had it down pat. Eyes front when you’re flying between arches, dumbass!

    As he firmly berated himself, the adrenaline rush wore off and his heart rate slowed. Though he was unhurt, he made the choice to stay where he was for the moment. At three stories up, he was well below the monorail and yet still had a good view of both sides of the canal. Across the canal appeared to be a row of food vendors rather than actual eateries, while directly below him a small café had managed to squeeze itself in between a bakery and a fruit shop. Tables had been set up so that patrons could eat on the boardwalk. Fairy lights strung between the monorail poles glowed gently in counterpoint to the holograms, the lazy ripples on the dark water causing the reflections to twinkle.

    Even at this late hour, there were more people out and about than he would’ve expected. Some strolled back and forth along the boardwalk, while others purchased food at the vendors. A few sat inside the café, while others ate at the tables overlooking the canal. These guys must be coming off the late shift.

    From his vantage point, he could see a few people looking his way, their attention no doubt attracted by his involuntary yell. He essayed a tentative wave—all good here, nothing to see—and a couple of them waved back. After a few moments, they seemed to lose interest in him and went back to what they were doing.

    And then he blinked, because someone strolling along the boardwalk had just caught his eye. He couldn’t see the face, but something about the guy’s stance and the way he walked looked familiar. Is he the one from the station? This wasn’t a late shift worker, Jericho was certain. Nothing the guy said or did had given the impression of someone with a regular job. Instead of wearing the jacket from earlier, he had it folded over his arm. This seemed a little odd, given that it was now late in the evening and colder than it had been earlier.

    What was his name, again? Todd? Tony? He couldn’t remember off the top of his head, but it struck him as a mild coincidence that he’d encounter the guy again so quickly. Of course, the guy had said he lived in the area. His hair seemed to be just as attractively tousled as ever, which made Jericho suspect hairspray. Nobody looked that good all the time without help.

    Releasing the glue-tags holding his hands and feet to the arch one at a time, Jericho moved around so he had a better view of the boardwalk. When he returned his attention to what was happening down below, he saw that the guy had stopped at the bakery and was loading a cloth bag with what looked like mini-pizzas. Jericho wondered if they were anywhere near as tasty as the full-sized ones he’d shared with the others earlier, and his mouth watered. The guy pulled out his wallet and produced his MagCard, which he swiped across the reader. After tucking card and wallet away, he took the bag of mini-pizzas and strolled off down the boardwalk with a jaunty step.

    Once the guy was out of sight, Jericho turned his attention to the other people in the area. They seemed to be a mixed bunch as far as age, gender and ethnic appearance went. Clothes were neat and tidy, and while some were drinking what he suspected was alcohol, nobody seemed to be noticeably drunk.

    The shops lining the boardwalk directly below him were all one-story constructions. Behind them, Jericho could see another street; this one was narrower than the one he’d glided down to get here, more like an alleyway. On the other side of the alleyway were taller buildings, in the two- and three-story range. Floodlights mounted on the corners of these buildings illuminated the building frontages clearly, probably to ensure that any security cameras had an unobstructed view of the roller-doors that he could see.

    Jericho guessed that these were used by the boardwalk businesses for storage. Restaurants and food vendors would go through a lot of stock in a day, after all. Like the street outside Oaklands, the boardwalk and buildings were clean and clearly well-maintained.

    Lifting his head, he looked around to re-establish his mental map of his immediate surroundings, then scanned the monorail support arches. He knew he could reach the next one along easily enough, even if he didn’t have the opportunity for a run-up.

    Scrambling up the arch for a little more height advantage, he gathered himself, then leaped and spread his arms. At the last minute, he chose to go diagonally across the canal instead of directly along it. This made the glide a little longer, but he was still pretty sure he could make it. Silently, he crossed the open canal, gradually losing altitude. When he reached the next arch, he’d dropped about ten feet, which he quickly remedied by scrambling up the angled metal pole until he was at a comfortable height above ground level. With his hands glued to the arch and his feet comfortably braced, he looked over the boardwalks again.

    The short hop had renewed his confidence that he knew what he was doing. The leap, the glide, the landing; all had gone exactly to plan. He felt the knot of tension in his chest unraveling slightly. Hey, I can do this. Crossing the canal back and forth as he worked his way down it seemed to be the right way to go. Of course, he’d have to be careful to stay under the airspace owned by the monorail. He didn’t know how often they came through and being hit by one would do him no favors at all.

    That was when Jericho spotted the guy again, this time on his side of the canal. Moving with a very familiar jaunty step, this person definitely had the moves and mannerisms of the guy from the maglev terminal. Tim? Goddamn it, what was his name? He dismissed the question as not being important. What was important was that the guy had totally changed his appearance with a few alterations to his clothing. The tousled hair was now covered with a baseball cap, and he was once more wearing his jacket. And oddly enough, he was still carrying the cloth shopping bag, but it was now empty. He wasn’t out of sight for more than a few minutes. Did he stash the pizzas somewhere? Why? And why did he change his look?

    This was shaping up to be a mystery. He wondered if it had anything to do with why they’d been pinged in the train station for a free meal, or whether the guy had just chosen them at random. What was his deal, and why had he changed his look just to walk down the other side of the canal?

    The most aggravating thing, Jericho decided, was that he’d probably never find out. It wasn’t as if he could land in front of the guy and demand answers. That was the most direct way of blowing his secret identity to hell and gone that he could think of. And while it was unusual for someone to change up his look like that, it certainly wasn’t illegal. Hell, if I hadn’t met him in the train station, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed it was the same guy.

    Jericho frowned, wanting to let it go but at the same time unable to do so. It’s really none of my business. Thomas had struck him as being nice enough (he mentally facepalmed as the guy’s name finally popped up in his memory) even though he’d seemed unwilling to speak with the police. Which didn’t surprise Jericho very much, as the police seemed to make it their business to know everyone else’s business. The cheek-brush was something he hadn’t forgotten, but it was a minor detail compared to everything else.

    Then he recalled the single important fact that probably explained everything. This is Utopia City. They do things differently here. What if he’s a prodigy who’s training himself to stay unseen in a crowd? It made for a certain amount of sense. Being a prodigy as opposed to a dynamic or an artificer traded raw power and inventive genius for sheer bullshit resourcefulness, but that resourcefulness was useless if it wasn’t utilized and trained. Thomas had certainly been personable enough to talk to, but that was probably just one of the things he was good at.

    As Jericho turned over the possibility in his mind, he watched Thomas approach one of the decorative footbridges that allowed easy passage over the canal. There was a gap between the shops at that point, probably to allow pedestrian traffic through to the street beyond. Coming across the bridge was a guy in his late teens, maybe a few inches shorter than Thomas, with a positively lanky frame and hair so blond it was basically white.

    As they passed one another, the pair slowed a little; they didn’t look directly at each other, but he could’ve sworn their lips moved, as though they’d exchanged a few words. Jericho’s lip-reading skills were rusty, and he could barely see their faces from where he was, so he couldn’t make out what was being said. However, it was all clear now; those two knew each other, and this was almost certainly Prodigy training. Which meant it was none of his business. Satisfied, Jericho nodded and began to turn away—just as two men lunged out of the pedestrian alleyway and smashed the lanky kid to the ground.
     
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  17. Threadmarks: Chapter Twenty-Four: Learning Experience
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Learning Experience

    Jericho stared as one of the men knelt on the kid’s back and wrenched his arm up between his shoulder-blades. Wait, what the hell? Nobody else seemed to take this amiss … well, given there weren’t all that many people nearby, he was unsurprised that barely anyone had noticed, apart from Thomas.

    “Hey!” Thomas objected. “Leave him alone!” He tried to pull the first attacker off the lanky kid, only to be grabbed by the other one. A small dark object was shoved into Thomas’ ribs and Jericho heard a distinctive crackling sound. Thomas convulsed and fell to the ground; the man stepped back and held the device at the ready.

    Before he really knew what he was doing, Jericho had launched himself from the pole toward the fight. Arrowing down toward them, he watched as the first man jabbed the blond-haired kid with another such device, his knee still jammed into the kid’s back. Probably a stun-gun, Jericho surmised. They were harder than firearms to deal with in some ways, and easier in others.

    In the time it took to think about it, he’d covered thirty of the forty-five feet to the site of the attack, G-tags already forming in his hands. Just as one of the men looked up and spotted him, he brought his hands forward and sent the ’tags flickering through the air.

    The guy who was kneeling on the blond kid’s back had short-cut sandy hair. His buddy was balding with black hair and a ratty vanDyke beard. Both were wearing dark jackets over jeans. The push-tag was the first one on target; it hit Sandy Hair, imparting a sideways shove. “Hey!” the guy yelled, just as the glue-tag hit him on the shoulder. If he’d been standing up, the push-tag wouldn’t have done more than make him stumble slightly, but his current position wasn’t very stable. He lurched sideways, falling off the lanky kid. In the process, his shoulder impacted the boardwalk and stuck there. Once again, the attractive force was relatively weak, but in the absence of leverage it would serve to hold him on the ground for a precious few seconds.

    “What the—” Baldy McBeardface looked around to see Jericho swooping down toward him and reached into his open jacket; Jericho figured he wasn’t going for a hip flask. Without giving the guy the chance to pull the gun that he presumed was there, Jericho loosed two more G-tags.

    Once again, he used a glue-tag and a push-tag in rapid succession, but this time they went in the opposite order. Striking the jacket, the glue-tag dissipated into the cloth, with the effect that everything touching it was bonded to it and each other. Thus, anything in a shoulder holster would stay there until the effect wore off. A split-second later, the push-tag arrived, with the effect that the guy lost his balance and stumbled. Then Jericho reached hand to hand range, and things happened very quickly thereafter.

    Even as he did his best to yank his right hand from inside his jacket, the bearded man brought the stun-gun around in an attempt to tag Jericho when he got close enough. Under normal circumstances, Jericho would’ve had to either trust to the plastic plates to protect him or stop short to avoid the impact. He chose to do neither, pulling off a move that only someone with total control over their effective weight even had the option to try. Taking hold of McBeardface’s left wrist with his right hand and the man’s collar with his left, he guided himself over the device and brought his legs around in a move any circus acrobat would be proud to own. As intended, he swung all the way around the guy, wrapping him up with his own arm. His G-sense pinged, confirming that there was indeed a dense metallic mass within the man’s jacket. Bringing his weight up to normal, he let his feet drop to the ground and prepared to send the bald perp on a short flight of his own.

    He didn’t have the benefit of glue-tags on the ground to aid in leverage, but they weren’t essential for what he wanted to do next. The moment he had solid footing, he pushed his own weight up to one and a half times normal and reduced Baldy’s to one-tenth. Setting his stance properly, he pressed against the guy’s back with his shoulders, and heaved. The resultant yell sounded quite startled, which didn’t surprise Jericho in the slightest. Being thrown around like a rag doll was never a pleasant experience.

    As he brought McBeardface up and over, he turned with his leverage points so his opponent was going to land face-up. Bracing himself, he heaved outward and around, then let go. Still weighing one-tenth of his normal total, Baldy was flung toward the canal like a particularly ungainly Frisbee. As the guy crossed the edge of the boardwalk, Jericho removed the gravity alteration. Baldy yelled again as his ballistic arc angled abruptly downward and he fell seven feet into cold water.

    “Motherfucker!

    Jericho turned toward Sandy Hair just as the man wrenched his shoulder free of the glue-tag holding him down. The guy began to get up, but Jericho got there first. A single light touch made the guy three times as heavy as he was used to being, and he collapsed face-first onto the boardwalk. Jericho rarely used that many Gs on a standing target except in a fight against multiple opponents, but it worked well on someone who was already on the ground.

    “What the holy living hell do you think you’re doing?” blurted the sandy-haired perp as Jericho removed the stun-gun from his grasp. Suppressing the impulse to use it on its owner, Jericho tossed it to one side and wrenched the guy’s wrists up behind his back. “You’re in so much trouble right now, you’ve got no idea, you son of a bitch!”

    “What I’m doing is performing a citizen’s arrest,” panted Jericho as he dug a zip-tie out of the pouch on his utility belt. “The charge is assault and battery, committed on these guys right here. Soon as I call the cops—”

    “We are the cops, you moron!” snapped Sandy Hair. “We’re undercover!”

    Jericho paused. He’d heard any number of excuses as to why he shouldn’t secure someone for the cops before but strangely enough, the perpetrators claiming to be police officers themselves wasn’t one he’d run into before now. Well, there’s always a first time.

    “You’ll excuse me if I don’t just take your word for it,” he said as he expertly threaded the zip-tie around into itself. Wrenching the guy’s wrists a little higher, he settled the looped tie around them and pulled it tight. “Got anything resembling proof?”

    “Yeah.” The word came out as a painful grunt. “Call the fuckin’ precinct. Give ’em my badge number and ask for my name. It’s Chuck Gleeson.” He rattled off a series of digits.

    “Hold that thought.” Keeping a careful eye on the other man, currently splashing in the canal, Jericho took his phone out and hit redial on the last number.

    “Utopia City Police Department.” This time, it was a man. “Sergeant Donovan speaking. How may I help you?”

    “Yeah, this is G-Man. I called earlier and told you guys I’d be patrolling near the Oaklands. I’m at the Market right now; there’s a couple of guys here wearing civives and carrying stun-guns, who attacked someone out of the blue. I was doing a citizen’s arrest, but they said they’re undercover cops. One of them’s given me what he says is his badge number.” He carefully repeated the series of digits.

    “… yeah, that’ll be Gleeson. Detective Charles Gleeson. He’s working in that area, along with his partner Detective Forrester. He’s got kinda red hair; Forrester’s bald with a beard.” There was amusement in the operator’s voice. “You can let them go. They’re ours.”

    Jericho winced and got up from Gleeson’s back. “No problems. Thanks for your help.” Ending the call, he put his phone away then reached back to the pouch next to the one with the zip-ties. From there, he retrieved a seat-belt cutter, which also worked well to cut the plastic restraints without having a potentially dangerous exposed blade. It was the work of a moment to slice the tie free, while he let the man’s weight go back down to normal. While this held a slight element of risk, he considered himself safe if the guy tried to physically attack him. “So, why were you attacking that kid, anyway?”

    A splashing sound drew his attention and he saw the guy who had to be Forrester climbing out of the canal, dripping wet and with a nasty look in his eye. “That’s none of your business, asshole,” the second plainclothes detective said. “You’ve interfered with us in our lawful operations. You’re under arrest, and so are those two.” His glare cut past Jericho. “Well, don’t just stand there. Stop them!”

    Reminded of Thomas’ presence, Jericho flicked his eyes sideways to where the kid had been lying. Thomas was helping him up; the kid was wobbly but moving on his own. Raising his head briefly, Jericho caught the younger man’s eye for a fraction of a second. In that instant, he could’ve thrown G-tags and glued their feet to the ground … but he didn’t. Thomas’ eyes widened slightly; with the kid in tow, he stepped into the alleyway and disappeared.

    “I thought you said it was none of my business.” Jericho was fully aware that he was channeling Luke’s smartass nature, but the bald detective was seriously rubbing him the wrong way. “Come on, make up your mind. What’s so special about him, anyway?”

    “He’s wanted as a person of interest, you idiot,” Gleeson retorted as he got up onto one knee, then reached not for the stun-gun lying nearby, but his ankle; a moment later, Jericho was looking down the barrel of a snub-nosed revolver. “It took us hours to get into position to grab that little shit, and then you had to foul it all up. Which means you’re under arrest for obstruction.”

    Seriously?” Jericho was pretty sure there wasn’t much benefit in arguing with them, but it wasn’t like he had many other choices that didn’t involve beating them up again, which wouldn’t help matters beyond his immediate satisfaction. “You jumped him out of nowhere, and you’re in plain clothes. For all I knew, it was a straight-up mugging, or worse.”

    He knew now that it wasn’t, but he was still trying to figure out why he’d let the pair get away. It had been a reflexive move, almost instinctive. Maybe it was because he liked Thomas as a person, or perhaps because he just didn’t like the way the officers had jumped them with no warning. It might even have been all those factors combined. Whatever the reason, done was done.

    “If we’d verbally challenged, the little shit would’ve made a bolt for it,” the sopping-wet Forrester snapped. “Him and his friends are slippery like that. We’re law enforcement, and you obstructed us in the execution of our duties. That’s an indictable offense.”

    First off, no it isn’t. Not when I didn’t know you were cops. But Jericho decided not to quibble the finer points of the law at that moment. Both cops were on their feet now, Gleeson pointing his pistol directly at Jericho. Neither one had moved within arm’s reach, which only proved they were able to learn. Forrester didn’t have a weapon to hand, but Gleeson was perfectly capable of shooting Jericho if he tried to either attack or flee. While it was technically possible to glue-tag the revolver before Gleeson got a shot off, going up against someone of unknown skill when he really didn’t have to would be the height of idiocy. Likewise, he could G-shake both cops into puking helplessness, but that wouldn’t stop Gleeson from firing at least once. The shot might miss … or it might hit anyone behind Jericho. In any case, he held on to the faint hope that this could be sorted out with diplomacy.

    “When you first hit the guy, I was across the other side of the canal,” Jericho said carefully. “It’s not as if you’re in uniform. Call the precinct yourself if you don’t believe I’m a hero. You just heard me confirm that I checked in with them earlier.” He tried to remember the name of the sergeant he’d spoken to, but her name eluded him.

    “Bullshit,” snapped Forrester, but Jericho thought he detected a quick glance between the two of them. “I don’t believe that for a hot second. You just helped a potential criminal escape. That’s not what a hero does.”

    Jericho looked at Gleeson, who appeared to be the brains of the operation. “If you don’t want to call the precinct, you can ask Force Majeure directly. For God’s sake, I came here to interview for a place with them! In fact, I was talking to Transit about five minutes ago, just up that way.” He pointed back toward where he thought the building was. “Seriously, just ask them. The name’s G-Man. I talked to her. She was riding a flying motorbike.”

    This time, the glance that the two detectives shared was more pronounced. “Check it out, Forrester,” Gleeson ordered.

    “I can’t,” Forrester objected. “He threw me in the water, remember? My phone’s screwed. You make the call.” As he spoke, he reached into his jacket, where the glue-tag had already dissipated. The pistol he produced was only a small-caliber automatic, but this didn’t make the situation any more tenable. “I got him covered.”

    “So long as someone makes the goddamn call already.” Jericho was starting to get a little sick of being held at gunpoint, but if it got this sorted out, he was willing to stand it. If they kept this up much longer, though, he was seriously considering taking matters into his own hands.

    “Yeah, yeah, don’t get your tights in a twist.” Gleeson replaced his pistol in its ankle holster, then pulled out his phone. Activating the phone only took a few seconds, then he tapped a number in. Seconds later, he got an answer.

    “Hi, yeah, this is Gleeson. We got this guy calling himself G-Man, who just blew a bust wide open and chucked Forrester in the canal. He’s claiming he talked to Transit about interviewing for a spot with Force Majeure tomorrow. You got anything on him?” There was a pause. “Yeah, G-Man. Black costume. Just flew in out of nowhere.”

    While he waited, Jericho replayed the conversation in his head. Hopefully they wouldn’t try to arrest him now, but if they were still intent on it after the phone call, his only hope would be to talk to someone in authority and convince them it was just an unfortunate misunderstanding.

    “What?” Gleeson’s voice took on a note of unhappy surprise. “Can you check again? Okay … yeah, understood. Thanks.” He shut the call down then glanced at Jericho. His expression was more than a little worried as he put his phone back in his pocket.

    It was apparent that Gleeson was on the back foot. Jericho tamped down an upswell of hope as the police detective cleared his throat nervously. “Uh, G-Man, it looks like it was just a misunderstanding after all. Your story checks out. You’re, uh, you’re free to go.”

    Both Jericho and Forrester stared at Gleeson, then the penny dropped; for Forrester, at least. Jericho was still confused as the bald cop let the automatic droop until it was pointed at the boardwalk between them. Forrester moved a few steps away from Jericho, until he was beside Gleeson. “They backed him up?” he asked out of the corner of his mouth, in the worst prison-yard whisper Jericho had ever heard.

    “Every word.” Although he glanced at Jericho, Gleeson didn’t bother lowering his voice. “Interview’s tomorrow morning, and Transit logged the encounter with the duty officer.” His entire attitude and stance had changed, making him look as though he’d wilted in the sun.

    “So that’s it?” Jericho looked at the two men dubiously. “We’re done here?” The about-turn had him puzzled and suspicious. Surely it couldn’t be this easy.

    “Yeah, we’re done.” Gleeson nodded jerkily to underline his words. “What you did, intervening like that, it was an honest mistake, like you said. So, we’re good if you are. And, uh, sorry about pointing guns at you like that. No hard feelings, yeah?”

    Jericho stared at the man. What the hell just happened? This was literally what he’d been saying earlier, and still they’d drawn down on him. Looking from Gleeson to Forrester and back again, he shook his head. “Next time, if the guy in the costume cuts you free and backs off, get a clue as to which side of the law they’re on.”

    It was time, he decided, to make a dramatic exit. There was a monorail support arch about forty feet to the left and another one fifty to the right, but he wanted to be more definitive than that, so he picked an arch pole on the other side of the canal. Vaulting onto the footbridge rail, he ran lightly up it until he reached the highest point, then launched himself into the air. The moment his feet left the wooden rail, he reduced his effective weight as far as it would go and spread his arms to let the elastic cloth catch the air.

    As he glided across the water away from the cops, he heard Gleeson let out a long sigh. “Well, that was a fuckin’ close one. Were you trying to get us fired?” Forrester’s reply was inaudible, but Jericho didn’t much care anymore. His heart was still hammering from the stress of the situation. Less from the fight than from the subsequent confrontation, if he was honest with himself. He knew his capabilities in hand to hand combat, but this was a whole different battlefield. If this had happened anywhere else, and it had come down to a legal stand-off between him and two undercover cops who were technically in the right, he’d probably would’ve lost out big-time.

    The archway pole he’d aimed at loomed ahead of him, and he reflexively threw out a couple of glue-tags. Once he came into contact, he wasted no time in climbing higher up the pole to get a more elevated kickoff point. At forty-five feet off the water, he was basically level with the maglev rail, and the pole was beginning to angle inward. In addition, he noticed that people were starting to look up and point again. He didn’t know how many had seen the confrontation with the undercover cops, but it probably wasn’t the best idea to make even more of a spectacle of himself on the night before his big interview.

    Poising himself, he leaped over open air once again, heading away from the canal. The sloped roofs of the shops passed beneath him, then the narrow street. When he came to the first storehouse, he was still higher up than the roof of the building, so he spiraled down for a landing. Ten feet up, he deliberately stalled out, spilling the air from his gliding wings, then dropped easily to the rooftop.

    There wasn’t much light here, but the rooftop had the same sort of hexagonal pattern that he’d seen elsewhere, along with a waist-high safety rail. Utopia City, it seemed, was particularly dedicated toward solar energy collection. Still, he wasn’t there for that.

    “That was too goddamn close,” he told himself severely, pacing along the edge of the rooftop, inside the rail. “What the crap were those asshats even thinking, roughing up those guys like that? I couldn’t have known.” Taking a deep breath to try to settle his racing nerves, he went through the action again in his head. Unless there’d been some signal or warning that he hadn’t seen or heard, they really hadn’t identified themselves as police officers until he’d taken them down. And right up to the point that Gleeson had made his phone call, they’d been all set to have him arrested and charged for obstruction. At worst, if Gleeson had been more trigger-happy, he might even have been shot. Then, between one minute and the next, they’d inexplicably chosen to take him at his word.

    No, he realized as he turned and paced the other way. They only got interested in my credentials as a hero once I name-checked Transit and said I was interviewing with Force Majeure. That’s when they started to change their tune.

    He stopped and leaned on the rail, looking out over the narrow alleyway. It was silent and deserted, quite at odds with what he’d just gone through one block over at street level. Despite his agitation, one corner of his mouth quirked up in a half-grin; if that wasn’t a metaphor for the life of a superhero, he didn’t know what was.

    But getting back to more serious matters: what was it about Force Majeure that could make even the cops decide not to arrest him? He hitched his butt up onto the rail, then swung his legs over so he was sitting with his feet against a post and knees out over the drop. Slowly, he began to put the pieces together.

    It was a fact of life that things were done differently here in Utopia City. The free electricity, the better wages (and side benefits), the amazing technology; that was all in the ‘plus’ column. In the ‘minus’ column was the fact that the cops tracked the MagCards of people they considered undesirable and made subtle attempts to provoke them into reacting in an illegal fashion. And apparently … this. Undercover cops smashing a teenage boy into the sidewalk because he was (or they thought he was) a person of interest. This wasn’t exactly unknown even in Savannah, but he’d had higher hopes for Utopia City. Though there was the fact that Thomas had stepped into hiding when they’d been talking to that last cop. I never asked them why that blond kid was a person of interest.

    And now it seemed that the UCPD quite blatantly bent over backward for Force Majeure members, even going so far as to defer to people who were merely trying out for the team. This was almost certainly because nobody wanted to upset the superheroes who had built the city. Was that good or bad? He frowned, trying to pin it down as being in one column or the other. On the one hand, it meant he still had a chance to make it into the team. On the other …

    “Why did you do it?” The voice came from directly behind him.
     
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  18. Threadmarks: Chapter Twenty-Five: Survival Mode
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Survival Mode

    Jericho spun around, stifling a yelp of surprise. He recognized the voice almost at once, but it was still something of a shock to see Thomas standing in the middle of the rooftop. His sudden movement overbalanced him backward off the rail; instead of using his powers to recover, he turned it into a twisting flip that left him on his feet on the roof, facing Thomas.

    “Geez!” he exclaimed. “Don’t do that! What the hell?

    At first, Thomas didn’t answer. The light up here wasn’t the best, but Jericho got the impression that the younger man was regarding him with a steady intensity. Thomas’ whole attitude was a lot more defensive than on the other two occasions when Jericho had seen him; here, he seemed ready to fight or run at a moment’s notice. Slowly, he folded his arms. “You’re a hero.” His voice was flat. “Even when you knew they were cops, you didn’t stop us from getting away. Why?”

    Oh, god, don’t talk to me in that tone of voice. Jericho felt a distinct flutter in his chest as all his buttons got hit at once. Tall, well-built and standoffish. Clenching his fists inside his gloves to remind himself to keep things on a professional level, he took a deep breath. “They didn’t strike me as being exactly on the level,” he said, telling most of the truth. “Good cops don’t taser the living crap out of someone without at least giving them a chance to surrender.”

    Thomas’ lips tightened. “Depends on your definition of ‘good’. They tell you why they’re after us?”

    “Something about the other guy being a person of interest. I didn’t stop to ask any more details.” Jericho paused, frowning. “How’d you know I was up here, anyway?”

    That won him a snort from Thomas. “Credit me with some intelligence. You’re a prodigy. I could see it in how you fight. Prodigies gotta brood.” He spread his hands, indicating the rooftop. “And here we are.”

    Coming on the heels of the fact that he’d been snuck up on twice in one night, the implication that he was so predictable jarred Jericho to his heels. “Crap, I gotta up my game.”

    Thomas shook his head briefly. “Wasn’t all that easy; plus, I cheated. I’ve got a Prodigy rating, too. Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks. And to tell you if you’re gonna keep pulling that sort of crap, keep your head down. Force Majeure will land on you like an orbital strike if they find out. They aren’t real keen on new heroes who show up in town and start shaking things up. Especially ones who interfere with undercover police operations.” His message clearly delivered, he turned and headed for the far side of the building, his sneakers somehow making no sound on the rooftop.

    Huh, I was right. He really is a prodigy. “Wait.” Before he realized it, Jericho had taken a step forward. “What’s going on? What did they want you guys for, anyway? Why—” He paused, rethinking what he was going to say. “Why were they so rough on you?” Asking Thomas why he was so eager to avoid the notice of the police would do his secret identity no favors at all.

    Thomas stopped and turned. Slowly, he made his way back to where Jericho was standing. He had a calculating expression on his face. “I’ll tell you that if you tell me how you got them to let you go like they did.”

    “I …” Jericho paused for a moment, then decided it was going to come out anyway, one way or the other. “… as it happens, I’m interviewing to join Force Majeure in the morning. Apparently, that gives me protected status.”

    “Ah.” It might have been his imagination, but it seemed that Thomas eased back half a step. “Maybe I made a mistake then. My bad.”

    “No!” Jericho flinched at the sound of his own voice. “No, it’s not like that,” he insisted more quietly.

    Thomas’ gaze was a challenge in and of itself. “So, what is it like? Force Majeure is Force Majeure.”

    Jericho ran several answers through his head, but none of them sounded good. “Uh … can you tell me what you’ve got against Force Majeure? What’ve they done to you?

    Slowly, Thomas folded his arms again. This wasn’t a great sign, but he was still standing there, so Jericho waited.

    Eventually, Thomas sighed. “You already know I’m a prodigy,” he said. “What I’m about to tell you isn’t exactly a secret, but I’d really rather you kept it to yourself. All right?” His gaze on Jericho’s was firm and forthright. Oddly enough, it reminded Jericho of Bobbi for a moment.

    “Absolutely,” Jericho said. “You don’t know me, so I can’t back this up, but I don’t break promises.”

    Thomas’ hard expression wavered for a moment. “I’ve heard that before,” he murmured. “But I believe you. I don’t know why, but I do.” He took a deep breath and unfolded his arms. “The first thing you’ve got to understand is that if you’re an Enabled in Utopia, you toe the line as far as Force Majeure is concerned, even if you’re not a member. Independent heroes follow their lead, the cops follow their lead, everyone follows their lead. ‘Law and order’ isn’t just a phrase, here. If you’re not doing things their way, you’re invited to leave, then you’re told to leave, then you’re made to leave. And that’s if you’re a hero. With me so far?”

    “Yeah,” Jericho said slowly. He was doing his best to concentrate on Thomas’ words, but the flutter in his chest was back in full force. Damn it, why couldn’t you have been a girl, or short and weedy? With an effort, he focused on the issue at hand. “So, where do you come into it?”

    Thomas chuckled humorlessly. “We’re the closest thing you’ll find to supervillains in Utopia right now. It’s not by choice. There’s more than me and Ray. That’s not his real name, just so you know. Right now, there’s six of us, all Enabled, and we all came to Utopia looking for … well, to be honest, I don’t know what we were looking for, not anymore. Everyone else lost one or both parents to supervillain attacks.” He frowned. “Which feels like it should be significant, but I don’t know how.”

    “Everyone else?” asked Jericho. He tilted his head. “What about you?”

    Thomas looked away, patently uncomfortable with the question. “I was attacked by an Enabled, and it didn’t end well.”

    “Jeez,” muttered Jericho, without really knowing why. “I’m sorry. I really am.” Up until now, Thomas had presented a façade of careless confidence; this was the first crack Jericho had seen in it. He wanted to ask more questions, but he didn’t want to push too far or too fast.

    Impulsively, he took a step forward, but Thomas backed away. It took Jericho no time at all to realize that the younger man was on the cusp of bolting. Seeking to look less threatening, he moved back and lowered himself to the railing. “Sorry. I’ll just sit here, okay?”

    Thomas nodded jerkily. “Okay, that’s fine.” He seemed to be breathing quickly, almost hyperventilating. “Just … keep your distance, all right?”

    “Whatever you want.” Showing off just a little, Jericho shifted his weight slightly until his balance was just right, then lifted his legs and assumed a cross-legged posture on the rail. Resting his hands palm-up on his thighs, he looked up at Thomas. “So, do you want to tell me why you and your friends are on the outs with Force Majeure if you came here looking to be heroes? Because I can’t see anyone with half a brain coming here to be a villain.”

    The little bit of theater seemed to disarm Thomas’ paranoia, or at least distract it for a while. “No, that’s true. I never chose to be a villain. When I got here, I tried to join Force Majeure. We all did. But there’s something about them …” He shook his head. “During the interview … there was a vibe. I can’t describe it. We all just changed our minds. Opted out. Walked away to be independent heroes in Utopia. But we weren’t that good at it, and because we weren’t even paying lip-service to Force Majeure, the cops didn’t cut us any slack when we screwed up. So now our Enabled identities are on the wrong side of the law, which technically makes us villains.” He snorted self-deprecatingly. “I never even got around to picking out a name or a real costume.”

    Jericho tilted his head. “Surely you can just leave? Be Enabled somewhere else?” There had to be more to this than what Thomas was saying.

    “No.” Thomas grimaced. “We could have, back before the cops dropped the hammer on us, but after that it was too late. We’re all minors, or close enough to it. We all came here, hoping that our powers could give us a fresh start in life, because our families just weren’t there for us anymore. None of us has a credit rating. No paper trail, no way to get a job and earn money. We’re runaways, so any bank accounts we had are well in the red by now. We can’t just give ourselves up to the cops and hope for fair treatment, because the best case would involve being sent back to what we had before, and I’m never going back to that.” He took a deep breath. “The trouble is, everything in Utopia’s done by MagCard. Money as a physical thing barely exists here. Even if we had any cash, you can’t use it to buy a ticket on the maglev. They only take MagCards, and those need a bank account with money in it.”

    “What, really?” That didn’t sound right. “I’m pretty sure that it’s illegal not to accept cash money as payment of debt, or something like that.” He recalled reading something about ‘all debts, public and private’.

    Thomas shook his head. “I wish that was the case, but no. Cash money’s legal tender, but there’s no Federal law that says anyone’s got to accept it. Utopia passed legislation a few years ago that gives all commercial shopkeepers access to MagCard readers. In theory, they could accept money, but in practice nobody wants to hold cash on their premises.”

    “Okay, sure. But the maglev’s not the only way in or out of the city,” Jericho pointed out. “I-seventy goes past just to the south of the city. I saw it on the way in. How did you get into the city in the first place, if it’s so hard to get out?”

    “I rode the bus in from Omaha,” Thomas explained. “The plan was to get a MagCard as soon as I got on to the team. With the membership backing me up, I would’ve been able to open another bank account, one that—” He broke off. “Anyway, it didn’t work out. Some of the others came in on the bus like me while it was still stopping here, or hitched in. A couple had MagCards, but after they were branded as villains, they couldn’t use them. By the time we realized we were trapped, it was too late.”

    Jericho shook his head. “There’s got to be a way to get out of town without using a MagCard. You make it sound like someone set things up so there’d be no way out, and I absolutely refuse to believe that.”

    Tilting his head and looking up at the night sky, Thomas chewed on his lip for a moment. “I don’t think this is deliberate. It’s more of a collection of unrelated situations with an unintended consequence. Greyhound was the last interstate bus line that had a depot here, but that closed down four months ago because the maglev’s faster and cheaper. They were the last legal way to get out of town using cash money. There’s a fleet of electric shuttle buses that do morning and afternoon runs to local towns, but they only take MagCard as well.”

    “Can’t you just walk out along the interstate, or one of the other roads, and hitch a ride on the way?” While Jericho had never done the hitchhiking thing himself, it wasn’t a difficult solution to arrive at.

    Thomas shook his head. “All the roads out of town have surveillance on them. The local laws allow for anyone hitchhiking or even just walking alongside the road to be intercepted by the cops and given the third degree. And that’s if you’re an adult; if you’re a minor, they’ve got the power to straight-up detain you for your own protection until they can hand you over to whoever they recognize as your legal guardian. Force Majeure will check the MagCard accounts of the ones that have them, which will bust any Enabled identities wide open. They’re really intense about bringing down anyone who’s been tagged as a villain in their area of operation. I heard of this one dynamic who could do super-speed, called Lightfoot. He tried hacking into the city’s systems, using his speed to overwhelm the firewalls. Didn’t help. They pinged him and he made a run for it. Got all the way to Eskridge, a hundred miles out, but they were waiting for him when he got there.”

    “How about tourists?” asked Jericho. “If you flag down someone leaving town, the cops wouldn’t care about you, would they?” He hadn’t seen any ordinary cars driving around, but he hadn’t been in the city for very long. There had to be some places where tourists went.

    “Ordinary cars don’t get to drive into Utopia proper, or didn’t you know that?” Thomas must have seen something in Jericho’s expression. “Huh, you really didn’t know that. Wheels aren’t allowed on our roads, especially since they’re literally made from solar panels and all.” His voice held a curious mixture of pride and bitterness. “No, cars on the interstate can pull in at Southside Parking and fuel up with biofuels that Utopia produces, but their roads don’t connect to our roads. People in Utopia can own cars, but they’re the same as the cop cars, only slower, so they can’t drive on regular roads. As for hitching a ride straight out of town, the Southsiders have got that all sewn up.”

    Jericho was startled by the solar panel revelation but before he could comment, he was distracted by the reference Thomas threw in at the end. “Southsiders? Are they the people who work at Southside Parking?”

    “Well, yes and no,” Thomas said. “They’re the closest thing Utopia’s got to an actual criminal underworld. See, Southside Parking is a big multilevel structure that caters for anyone off the interstate who wants to spend more time than the few minutes it takes to gas up. People can go right through to the South Side Mall and get a meal, do some shopping, whatever. The Southsiders are infiltrated through the business and into the mall. They’ve got connections, and they’re the only ones who really handle cash in Utopia. Anything illegal that comes into the city, it comes in through them. That’s where anything being smuggled into or out of the city gets handed over, in the parking structure. And when they leave is when anyone sneaking out of Utopia goes with them.”

    It sounded a little too pat to Jericho. “That sounds like something the cops would love to bust in a heartbeat, to be honest.”

    Thomas nodded. “Yeah, they do their best. But any time official suspicion starts to fall on one of the actual Southsiders, he gets swapped out for someone who’s not in on it, while the guys in charge never show their faces. If the cops try to slide someone into the organization, the mole just ends up doing dead-end work until he gets reorganized out of the sensitive area again.” He spread his hands expressively. “It’s a sweet setup, but while they do offer passage out of town on the interstate, you’ve got to pay up front. If they get even the slightest suspicion someone might be a ringer, the whole deal drops through. You never see your cash again. It’s a whole lot easier to stay in town and look for another way out.”

    Jericho held up a finger, suspicion flooding through his mind. “Wait a minute. I saw you using a MagCard to buy stuff earlier. You’ve clearly still got an active account that the cops don’t know about, so it can’t be all that difficult for you to get out of town.”

    “Yeah. I was, I do, and it’s not.” Thomas’ frank statement took Jericho aback. He’d expected defensiveness or backtracking, not a flat-out admission. Further confusing him, the younger man smirked slightly. “That wasn’t my original account. There’s a little trick I can pull, but I can’t do it too much or too often. I think people are starting to suspect, which would explain why the cops are on our asses so hard.”

    “Well, if it’s not all that hard for you to buy a ticket out of town, why don’t you just get one and go?” asked Jericho. “I mean, it’s obvious you don’t like it here.”

    Thomas gave him a hard glare. Paradoxically, this sent a flush of warmth clear through Jericho’s heart. “If you’re anything like me, you already know the answer to that. I’m not about to leave the others in the lurch.” The younger man shook his head, regret clear on his features. “I just didn’t know they’d made Ray as one of the Survivors, or I would’ve told him to keep his head down.”

    “Survivors?” Jericho wished he could hug Thomas for his reply but he didn’t want to scare him off, so instead he put his hand on the rail and shifted his posture so he was sitting sideways with his legs folded beside him. “What’s that?”

    Thomas tapped himself on the chest. “Us. We all survived what happened to us. Like I said, we’re the closest thing you’ll find to supervillains here right now, and that’s only because we’re Enabled and we kinda break the law. Anyone who tries to go full-bore villain here gets hammered down hard, but we do our best to stay under the radar. All we really do is steal food and other necessities of life. Nobody gets hurt. Except when the cops spot one of us.” His face closed up. “I should’ve been more careful.”

    “Well, that sucks.” It was unpleasant to find out that even Utopia City had a dark underside. “Are you going to be all right? That one asshat stun-gunned you pretty good there.”

    Thomas’ hand went to his ribs. “I’ll be fine. I’m tougher than I look.” Which, if he was a prodigy like he said, was quite possibly nothing less than the truth. The cautious look he gave Jericho only underlined the veracity of what he’d been saying. “So that’s me. What are you gonna do about it?” The tension evident in his voice was echoed in his posture. By all appearances, he was preparing to bolt if he had to.

    On the one hand was the fact that Thomas and the rest of the Survivors were breaking the law every time they stole something. They were at odds with Force Majeure, in Utopia City, the very team he’d come to join and still held in high regard. If he turned the Survivors in, not only would he get a pat on the back from local law enforcement, but there was also a good chance they’d be reunited with whatever family they had, which would get them out of Utopia City. And it might even give his chances of joining Force Majeure a significant boost. If he looked at it purely from a selfish standpoint, it was the right thing to do. It was certainly the legal thing to do.

    On the other hand, he did feel a certain amount of attraction toward Thomas, and sympathy toward him and his friends regarding the rough hand they’d been dealt. That wasn’t nearly enough to tip the balance, but the issue of morality was. Growing up in Savannah, Jericho had always been aware that legal did not necessarily equal moral. Discrimination against minorities, against homosexuals, against women, had long been legal. It had even been thought of as moral for the longest time. But it wasn’t legal anymore and, in all truth, it had never been moral. What was happening to the Survivors now was basically the same thing, under a different guise.

    If he turned Thomas and his friends in, subsequent events would be out of his control. He’d have no way of guaranteeing their well-being once they were in the system. Worse, if he did it right now, he’d be betraying the trust, however tenuous, that Thomas had vested in him by telling him what was going on. That, above all else, decided him.

    “Well, I’d like to try and help you if I can,” he said frankly, deriving a certain amount of amusement from Thomas’ start of surprise. “But I don’t … whoa, wait a second.” For the second time that day, he felt an almost physical burst of light in his head as the pieces of a puzzle slotted together. “Maybe I can help. Or at least, I know someone who can.” It was all so clear now. Luke had almost certainly come to Utopia City to contact the Southsiders. With that as a starting point, the elements of his plan fell into place like dominoes.

    “You know someone?” Thomas didn’t sound overly thrilled by the idea. “Can you narrow it down a little?”

    “Not right this second. Operational security.” Jericho’s mind was working overtime. How the hell do I get Luke back in contact with Thomas without outing myself in the process? “I’ll figure something out. Right now, how about I give you my number so we can work out details later?” He dropped his feet to the rooftop and sat up straight. Flipping open the appropriate pouch on his belt, he pulled out his phone.

    “Shit, no.” Thomas shook his head. “Text messages are routinely monitored in Utopia, and I’m almost certain voice calls are too. If we’re going to do this, we need to use codewords that still sound normal, and we just plain don’t make voice calls. Voiceprints are a thing, after all. I usually keep my phone turned off until I want to check my texts, just in case they’re trying to track it.”

    “Sonovabitch,” Jericho muttered, shaking his head. “The way you’re talking, Utopia City is about one step away from being a full-on police state. Why doesn’t Force Majeure do something about that?”

    “You’ve got the wrong end of the stick there,” Thomas said, his voice tired. “Officially, Force Majeure has no hand in city politics. Unofficially, if they want a local ordinance passed, it gets rubber-stamped before the ink’s had time to dry. They’ve even got some say about what goes into state law. Everyone knows it; nobody talks about it. All these laws? Their idea.”

    “But … that … I don’t understand.” Jericho shook his head, trying to make sense out of Thomas’ words. With this latest revelation, he was beginning to second-guess his decision to apply for membership. “They’re superheroes.

    “Yes. They are.” Thomas gave him a sympathetic look. “But their job is to protect the public, not to coddle them, and you have to admit Utopia constitutes an almost irresistible target for hostile Enabled, as well as anyone else who has a bone to pick with Force Majeure. Enabled can be kids as well as adults, and Force Majeure is totally aware of the danger posed by teenagers with all the power but none of the judgement, especially in a target-rich environment like Utopia. To counter this, back when they were first starting up, they had a whole slew of local laws passed, all deliberately aimed at making it as hard as possible for anyone to get close enough to do serious damage without showing up on the radar somewhere. This included reducing the chance of hit-and-run attacks by making sure that sneaking in or out of town, or slipping through the cracks once they were here, became a whole lot harder. So basically, while we got caught up in it, it wasn’t directed specifically at us. It just turned out that way.”

    Jericho’s incipient outrage slowly ebbed away as he took in the younger man’s words. “God damn,” he muttered. “I’m not sure which to be more concerned about. The fact that the end result is screwing you guys over so hard, or that I can actually understand the reasoning behind it all.” He shook his head. Well, at least it explained why Utopia City cops were such hardasses. They were literally guarding against hostile incursions, every hour of every day. Bobbi’s speculation back at the Oaklands had hit the nail right on the head. “Maybe I could put in a good word for you guys when I go to my interview with Force Majeure tomorrow?”

    “Shit, no, don’t do that.” Thomas put both his hands up defensively. “We’ve gotten by so far by staying under their radar. If they decide we got to you, you lose your spot and they come after us in force. There wouldn’t be a corner dark enough for us to hide in.”

    “You don’t know they’d do that.” Jericho’s elevated view of Force Majeure was taking a beating, but he had to believe that America’s premier Enabled team would give the Survivors a fair hearing. “They’re heroes. That’s not what they do.”

    “No.” Thomas shook his head. “They’re people. People with powers, but still people. They’ve been running the show here for fourteen years. Sure, they’re superheroes. But there’s no way in hell they’d allow kids like us to challenge their authority or make them look ineffectual and weak. It’s not the way they do business. This is their hometown, and they aren’t about to step back for anyone.” He threw up his hands. “I mean, it’s not like they’re gonna do anything illegal. They don’t have to. The laws are all on their side. They wrote them that way. And if you think someone like Relentless is gonna give someone like me a break when he’s got no reason to, then you don’t know the guy very well.”

    “Crap.” It was an admission of defeat, rather than a denial of Thomas’ words. “Okay, I won’t say a word. We’ll do it your way.”

    “And you’ve got to be careful.” Stepping forward, Thomas took Jericho’s hand in his own. His grasp was warm, even through the leather of Jericho’s glove. “If you get caught helping us, you’ll be in serious trouble. At the very least, you’ll lose any chance of ever getting into Force Majeure. Maybe go to jail. I can’t allow you to risk yourself or your future like that.”

    Slowly, Jericho stood up. He was very aware of the nearness of the younger man, and the intensity with which Thomas was regarding him. Distantly, he realized that his heart rate had picked up again. As a prodigy, he had a certain innate ability to power through the effects of such things as fatigue and poison much more quickly than normal humans could manage. It seemed that his own hormones fell outside that category. But no matter what his body thought of the matter, this was not the right time or place for him to start awkwardly flirting. Down, boy.

    He cleared his throat, trying to keep his voice steady. “I’ll write your number down rather than store it in my contacts list, and I’ll be careful about what I say when I do contact you.” Low-tech for the win. He was quite pleased with the idea, and with the fact that he carried a notebook and pen in his utility belt for just such an occasion.

    The glance Thomas shot Jericho, and the momentary grin that tugged at the corner of his mouth, suggested that the act wasn’t totally convincing. Taking pity on Jericho’s sensibilities—or perhaps simply deciding he needed the use of both hands for the moment—Thomas let go Jericho’s hand and retrieved his own phone out of his pocket. “Okay, what’s your number? And more importantly, what’s your plan?”

    “Well, the plan’s relatively simple.” Jericho kept his eyes on Thomas’ face to remind himself to stay on track. One thing at a time. “My friend’s going to be meeting with the Southsiders tomorrow to arrange some business of his own. I’m pretty sure he’ll be willing to help arrange passage out of town for all of you. Once we both go back home, I’ll dip into my savings for however much cash they want and then my friend returns to Utopia City with it. He pays half up front, waits with the Southsiders until you’re all safely away, then he pays them the other half. One week, tops. Figure you can hold out that long?”

    Thomas blinked. “You’d do that? Just to help us get out of town?” His expression was an agonized mix of hope and incredulity, teetering toward the former. If Jericho had thought his expression was intense before, by now it was downright laser-focused. He searched every visible inch of Jericho’s features with his eyes, clearly seeking any sign of deception or misplaced humor.

    “Well, yeah,” Jericho began. He didn’t get any further, because Thomas impulsively grabbed him by the front of his jacket and kissed him, hard. Surprise exploded in Jericho’s mind, driving all other thoughts away. His eyes widened, but not as much as Thomas’ did.

    The kiss ended far sooner than Jericho would’ve liked, but he wasn’t arguing with the fact of being kissed in the first place. Trying to collect his whirling thoughts, he swayed in place as Thomas stepped back, staring at him. Oh, come on, he thought fuzzily. It wasn’t that bad a kiss, was—

    Jericho?” blurted Thomas. “What the hell?
     
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  19. Threadmarks: Chapter Twenty-Six: Changing Plans
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Changing Plans

    Jericho stared back at Thomas. “Wait, what now? How did you—” Far too late, he realized he should’ve played dumb, and abruptly shut his mouth. The cat was out of the bag by now, but at least he could avoid spilling any more of the beans. A random part of his mind asked, wait, he remembered me? Wow. I did not expect that.

    “That’s not important right now,” Thomas said firmly, not helping Jericho’s state of mind. “How come you’re here? Have you been stalking me? Are you following me?” His stern gaze sent shivers down Jericho’s spine.

    “No!” protested Jericho. “You came with us in the cab, remember? You told us about the Market. I decided to check it out, and that’s what I was doing when those asshats attacked you and Ray.” He chose not to mention the fact that he’d been watching Thomas stroll up and down the Market before that point. That part did sound a little stalkerish, even inside his own head. “I couldn’t let that shit fly, so I stepped in.”

    “You certainly managed that,” agreed Thomas with a grin, before his expression turned thoughtful. “I guess I did tell you about it, yeah. And I’m glad of it. Ray would probably be on the way to jail if you hadn’t stepped in. Or I would’ve had to beat them up, which would’ve opened a whole other can of worms.”

    “Well, I’m pleased I could help.” Jericho knew it sounded lame, but he couldn’t think of a less awkward way to say it. “I, uh—”

    He stopped himself before the words I’d like to see you again maybe, once things settle down came out. This would sound too much like I did you a favor, would you like to go out with me? and would probably be the exact wrong thing to say right now.

    “You, uh …?” prompted Thomas, hitching one eyebrow up slightly. Jericho got the distinct impression that the young man knew exactly what he was thinking. What he had no way of knowing was Thomas’ opinion of this line of inquiry. Which inspired another question. How Thomas would respond to this one, he had no idea.

    “Um, I was wondering, now that we’re kind of sharing information … how did you know it’s me?” Jericho gestured at his mask. “I know you said it isn’t important but it kind of is. I’d like to know how I screwed up. If you can figure it out, so can other people.” Especially given that he’d spent less than half an hour in Thomas’ company, all told. The kiss had definitely changed matters up, though.

    Thomas sighed. “I guess you’ve earned this one. Don’t tell anyone, and I do mean anyone, but I’m not just a prodigy. I’ve also got a Dynamic rating that lets me read and replicate the biosignature of anyone I come into physical contact with.” He eyed Jericho carefully. “There’s exactly five other people who know I can do this. Don’t spread it around, please?”

    This was news to Jericho, but not in a huge way. In fact, it made Thomas just a little more relatable, as a fellow prodigy/dynamic. Considering this, he smiled wryly. “Sure. You keep my secrets, I keep yours. Isn’t that the way it works?” He blinked as something occurred to him. “Wait. When you kissed me, was that so you could get my biosignature data or because you wanted to kiss me?”

    Thomas smirked in return. “Yes.”

    “Oh, ha ha.” Jericho gave him a dirty look, but felt his smile widening anyway. He’d walked into that one, and Thomas had delivered. The younger man was turning out to almost be as much of a smartass as Luke, which Jericho kind of liked. Of course, the stolen kiss was something he needed to think about. But before he could get into that, another question occurred to him. “Um, don’t you need someone’s MagCard to use their bio data with?”

    “Ah.” Thomas held up a finger. “As it happens, no. You see, the MagCard doesn’t store data. Only you can access your account, but you can use any MagCard to do it with. The ’Card’s just the interface.”

    Jericho’s eyebrows shot up at his news. “Wait, what again now? You can hit anyone’s account, once you’ve got their biometric data? And they’ll never know?”

    “Well, yeah, they’ll know, especially if I’m using their account at one end of town and they’re using it at the other end. The system flags little anomalies like that and brings them to the users’ attention. Also, it lets the authorities know. It’s how I pull that little trick I told you about, and why they’re starting to come down on us. If word gets out that MagCards can be hacked—which they can’t, not really—confidence in the system will take a big hit. So far, they’ve kept it under wraps, and I’ve done my best to keep it discreet, but if I splurged on something like a ticket out of town, I’d blow my cover big time. Plus, I’d have to really be on my toes to get away with it at all.”

    “Shit.” Jericho shook his head. “Like the saying goes, it’s a great trick but you can only do it once.” He took a deep breath. “And of course, once you’re away from Utopia City, you can’t really do it at all.”

    “That’s right. Of course, once I’m away from this shithole, I can start earning money the proper way. All honest and above board.” There was a wistful tone in his voice that Jericho didn’t think was faked. “Every time I do it, I feel like I’m digging a hole just a little deeper.”

    “Well, I’m here to help you out of that hole,” Jericho declared, trying to inject surety into his tone. He had no guarantee that what he was saying was what would happen, but he was damn sure going to try.

    “Thanks. I really appreciate it.” Thomas’ expression transformed into a smile. “Actually, are you busy right now?”

    Jericho blinked and looked around. Nothing seemed to be demanding his attention right at that moment. “I … well, I was going to patrol a bit longer before I went back to the Oaklands, but I’m open to suggestions.” He wasn’t quite sure how the conversation had gotten to this juncture, and he certainly didn’t know where it was going. Far from making him uneasy, the sensation that flooded through his mind and set his blood fizzing was excitement. This was the mysterious (dare he say it—romantic) side of being a superhero that he’d daydreamed about in Savannah but had never experienced. Until now, anyway.

    Thomas grabbed him by the hand and pulled him toward the far edge of the roof. “Let’s grab a cab, and I’ll show you the South Side Mall. Trust me when I say you’ve never seen a mall like it.”

    “Wait, grab a cab? Go to a mall?” Jericho looked down at himself. “I’m in costume, here.”

    “So, change,” Thomas said pragmatically. “I already know what you look like. Or go as you are. Cabbies don’t care, so long as the MagCard’s good.”

    Jericho was intrigued by Thomas’ enthusiastic description of the South Side Mall. He’d been to a few and was reasonably sure that he knew how they worked. One might be a little larger than another, but a mall was a mall. He was also sure that walking through one in costume might draw a little too much attention, even at this time of … “Wait. It’s fairly late. Won’t it be closed?”

    “Pfft.” Thomas rolled his eyes expressively. “The South Side never closes. Some of the shops do, but most of them go all night, because Utopia never sleeps.” He tugged on Jericho’s hand again. “Come on.”

    His enthusiasm was infectious. Jericho was strongly reminded of Serena, who’d dragged both Luke and himself to mall openings and movie showings, persuading them with sheer sisterly persistence and strategic use of puppy-dog eyes. Luke had gone along with her reluctantly, occasionally grumbling but letting her have her way. For his part, Jericho had enjoyed the outings considerably more, much to Luke’s disgust.

    Reaching behind himself, he opened the long pouch at the back of his utility belt and extracted the satchel before removing the utility belt itself. The coiled-up belt went into the satchel before he turned his attention to the jacket. Taking care to unbuckle the straps from around his legs—he’d forgotten to do that once, which had made the whole operation awkward as hell—he unzipped the garment and let it slide off his shoulders. Then he paused and shrugged it back on for a moment.

    “What’s the matter?” asked Thomas. “Is something wrong?”

    Jericho gave him a rueful smile. “Just realized I might want this.” Reaching into the inside pocket of his jacket, he extracted his MagCard and slipped it into his pants pocket.

    “That’s definitely true,” the younger man agreed, sounding amused. As he watched Jericho take the jacket off for a second time, a spark of mischief danced in his eyes and he pretended to wolf-whistle.

    Ducking his head to hide the warmth in his cheeks, Jericho folded the jacket and stashed it in the bag. If Luke saw me blushing like this, he’d be laughing himself sick. After the jacket, he put the gloves in the satchel, followed by the mask as the final item. With each removal, he felt a little less like G-Man and a little more like Jericho Hansen, though the difference was hard to quantify. As Jericho, he supposed, he was more relaxed and laid-back, less worried about how he was presenting to the public and whether his mask was on straight. Jericho was definitely more likely to go checking out a mall in the middle of the night than G-Man. Turning to Thomas, he gave the younger man a firm nod. “Let’s go.”

    It was only about twenty feet to the pavement. Jericho slowed his fall and landed lightly, as was his usual practice. Thomas jumped down without needing assistance, absorbing the impact by flexing his knees and ankles. Jericho wasn’t perturbed; prodigies tended to be good at calculating falls like that. Either they could handle it, or they didn’t try it.

    He couldn’t help wondering what it would be like running the rooftops of Savannah with Thomas at his side. It wouldn’t be beyond the bounds of custom for G-Man to acquire a sidekick (or even partner) with whom to fight crime. And Thomas definitely wanted to get out of Utopia City.

    Two obstacles immediately came to mind; Stephen, and Force Majeure. Taken in reverse order, Force Majeure was a problem best dealt with by walking away from it. He wanted to join, but Thomas didn’t. If he simply failed to show up to the interview, then he’d be free to go back to Savannah and resume his heroic career there, with Thomas at his side.

    Of course, Stephen would raise a huge stink. He’d accuse Jericho of all the things he himself had done and reiterate his claim (with some justification) that Jericho had only gone to Utopia City to meet good-looking Enabled. Which wasn’t true, but if it was what had happened, Jericho would never be able to prove his intentions otherwise. He and Stephen would be through, but the process of separation would be neither short nor sweet.

    As they strolled from one pool of light to another, Jericho glanced at Thomas, wondering if it was fair on the younger man to drop him into that sort of hot mess. Then, as Thomas looked back at him, he realized something important. At no point in making any of these plans had he consulted Thomas on what he wanted.

    “What?” Apparently embarrassed at the scrutiny, the younger man ducked his face away. “Do I have something on my nose?”

    “No.” Jericho hesitated, then took the plunge. “Listen … uh … when this is over, and you’re out of Utopia City, if I’m not in Force Majeure … I was wondering if …” He trailed off. “Never mind. I’m just being stupid.”

    The look of enlightenment on Thomas’ face was almost comical. He stopped and turned toward Jericho. Reaching up, he cupped Jericho’s cheek with his hand; the warmth of his fingers on Jericho’s skin was almost intoxicating. “No, you’re not,” he said softly. “If you were going to ask if I wanted to come back to Georgia with you, I think that’s really sweet.”

    Jericho felt his heart lurch. “But you’re saying no.” Because my life is shit like that.

    “I’m not saying no.” Thomas slid his fingers into Jericho’s hair, a profoundly intimate gesture. “But I’m not saying yes, either. I’m saying wait and see. Let’s not make plans past tomorrow until we see what tomorrow brings, okay? You came here to join Force Majeure, so you owe it to yourself to give that your best try. If you don’t make it, then we can see about making plans. If you do, then I can travel to wherever you get posted. It’s no big deal. Either way, we got this. Okay?”

    That wasn’t a yes, but it was a hell of a lot better than a no. “Okay.” Jericho nodded tentatively. “I’m good with that.” To be honest, he would’ve been good with any plan Thomas put forth.

    “Good,” Thomas said briskly. His fingertips trailed down Jericho’s jawline, then he smiled in a way that coiled warmth in Jericho’s chest. “Let’s go get that cab.”
     
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  20. Threadmarks: Chapter Twenty-Seven: South Side
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    South Side

    The first air-cab stand they found was empty, but when Jericho pressed the button, an operator answered immediately. He gave the relevant information and was told that it would be a minute and a half before the air taxi arrived. This, he presumed, meant that it probably had to be called in from another area. In any case, Jericho found no great hardship in waiting, especially in Thomas’ company.

    “So, you haven’t been to the South Side Mall yet?” Thomas seemed to be gleefully holding on to a secret of some sort.

    “You know I haven’t.” Jericho shook his head in mild exasperation. “What’s it like?”

    “Oh, you’ll see.”

    It was a quiet night, but Jericho still didn’t hear the cab coming until it was decelerating to land. With a whoosh of air and a thrum of lifters, it settled down over the landing grille. They climbed on board and strapped themselves into the back seat; there was a space between them, so Jericho put his costume satchel there.

    “Evening, folks.” The cab driver, a woman, sounded chirpy enough. “You’re heading for the South Side Mall?”

    “Apparently so,” Jericho confirmed. He tugged his MagCard from his pocket. “I got this one, okay?” With his new awareness of how Thomas was paying for things, he had no problem with covering the entire fare. A swipe across the reader paid the amount on the screen, and they were airborne a moment later. With a smooth banking turn, the cab headed in what Jericho supposed was a southerly direction.

    It was quite restful in the taxi as they wove their way between the buildings, the noise of the lifters barely audible. The Spire was intermittently visible out the right-hand rear window, but while it was the most striking thing in the Utopia City landscape, it was far from the only beautiful thing. Quite apart from the glittering lights outlining the buildings, what really underlined the futuristic appeal of Utopia City were the holograms that hovered over and between them. He’d seen them before, from a distance, but they were quite another thing up close. Advertising, illustrations and sculptures of pure light abounded. A hundred-foot long dragon, red and gold in color, looked up from where it was wrapped around a structure that could have been lifted straight out of a Tolkien novel and opened its jaws wide to roar soundlessly at them. It was utterly magical in a way he hadn’t seen in a long time.

    “Like it?” murmured Thomas. “I love being up here at night.”

    “Me too,” Jericho said promptly. “I’ve seen a bit already, but this is absolutely gorgeous.”

    Jericho had his hand on top of the costume satchel, the strap wrapped around his wrist. In the next moment, he felt Thomas’ hand resting on his, the fingers curling over to grasp his palm lightly. He didn’t move, save to shift his hand slightly for easier access. With all the turmoil that was his life right then, he was content to sit there and enjoy the human contact. From the way Thomas’ hand settled into his, it was a mutual decision.

    “We’re nearly there, fellows.” The cabbie’s voice sounded over the speaker all too soon. “Where do you want to be dropped off? Mezzanine or footpath level?”

    Thomas didn’t hesitate. “Mezzanine level, please.”

    “Mezzanine level, no problem.” The cab adjusted its heading slightly as it came around a building, and Jericho saw their destination for the first time. With blue-green holographic lettering rippling over the frontage to form and reform the words SOUTH SIDE MALL, it was astonishingly tall with a gracefully rounded exterior. About ninety percent of the way up, half the area of the building became an expansive rooftop park. The rest of the building continued upward, tapering to a gracefully curved summit. Beyond the mall was the parking structure Thomas had mentioned, which was an impressive building in and of itself. The raised highway of the interstate could be seen in the background, cutting between the buildings of Utopia City on its east-west track. Jericho was at the wrong angle to see the offramp that led to the parking structure but as the vehicles raced along, he did spot a weird glinting of light just above the freeway, where no such reflection should be visible.

    “What’s that?” he asked before he realized the cabbie probably had no idea what he was referring to. “The flash of light off the interstate, I mean.”

    “Oh, the whole time the interstate’s inside city limits, and particularly inside the Greenway, it’s covered over.”

    “Greenway?” asked Jericho. At times, it felt as though his brain was filling up with all the details that made Utopia City unique. “What’s that?”

    “Big-ass park. It goes all the way around the city. You would've crossed it on the way in.”

    That rang a bell; while the maglev had still been two or three minutes out from the station, it had passed over an expanse of parkland. The greenery had blurred past in just a few seconds, too fast to see anything of note. He'd been impressed at the time, though since then his threshold for ‘impressive’ had been raised somewhat.

    “Okay, I remember something about it,” he said. “It goes all the way around the city?”

    “That’s right. The freeway goes under it, then comes up to give them access to Southside Parking. But the whole time it's inside Utopia there's a transparent cover over it that stops the exhaust fumes from spreading into the city and cuts down on traffic noise. They’ve got pollution precipitators in there to filter out the particulates, so they don’t build up. We have to let them drive through, but we don't have to breathe the crap they leave behind.”

    “What about the parking garage itself?” asked Jericho. “Driving around in one of those places, the air’s half goddamn fumes.”

    “No, they don’t park their own cars or trucks or whatever. It’s one of those big automated gigs. Drive onto a platform and park your car, and it gets stored like a book on a shelf. Then you just go through to the mall and have a meal, check into a short-stay, watch a movie or do some shopping. It’s all right there.” As the driver explained, the cab swooped in toward the park. Jericho picked out the air-cab stand on the edge of the flat area, just a few seconds before the cab decelerated and came in for a smooth landing. “Here you go, fellows. Have a nice evening, and enjoy South Side.”

    “Oh, we certainly will.” Thomas popped his door open and climbed out. Jericho was just a few seconds behind him, holding on to the strap of his satchel as he closed the door behind him. The taxi took off in a rush of displaced air and a thrumming of lifters.

    Jericho paused and looked around. “How many floors has this thing got, anyway?” he asked. “I mean, it’s not all shopping, is it?” A low rail curved around the perimeter of the park, then gave way to the roofed-over area from which the rest of the building kept on going upward. There didn’t seem to be any actual doors preventing entry; it was well-lit in there and he could see people moving around. Faint music came to his ears.

    The park itself was composed of brightly colored rubberized concrete paths winding between discreetly placed garden beds, with well-manicured grass in between. Real grass, too. In Jericho’s opinion, no matter how realistic they tried to make the artificial stuff look, it always came out just a little bit wrong. Here and there were placed concrete picnic tables, with the same sort of automated umbrellas he’d seen in the courtyard of the Oaklands; all furled away, of course.

    “Whole thing’s twenty-four stories,” Thomas informed him as they began to stroll toward the main part of the building. “This is level eighteen. Everything below us is shopping, movies, and short-stay apartments; everything above us is privately owned.”

    Jericho shook his head in amazement. “Twenty-four stories? This is the eighteenth floor? I could’ve sworn it was five times that. How high up are we?”

    Thomas waggled his hand from side to side. “Nine hundred feet, plus or minus. The ceilings are high, here. You’ll see.” He smirked, as if at a private joke.

    “I guess I will.” Jericho looked around. Distant sounds of splashing indicated that the swimmers were having fun in the pool. The playgrounds were sitting idle, probably because the kids who’d normally be using them were in bed. All in all, if it weren’t for the absurdly tall hologram-clad buildings in the near distance or the six floors still looming over them, he could’ve mistaken this for any small-town park in America.

    As they walked under the roof overhang, Jericho felt the same subtle popping sensation that he’d experienced walking out of the maglev station. He ignored it, gazing around to see what new wonders he would face. After all, a rooftop park probably wasn’t the reason Thomas was looking so pleased with himself.

    Within was well lit, as he’d already noticed. Several restaurants lined the interior space, which had remarkably few pillars standing in to support the rest of the building above them. Each restaurant had a holographic sign out front and tables and chairs placed in the public area, which was broad enough that it didn’t feel cluttered. The other two things to look at were a fountain which sprayed bursts of water on what had to be carefully calculated arcs to miss the ceiling above … and, a little way beyond the fountain, an open shaft going down into the floor, maybe thirty feet across.

    Jericho’s attention skidded off the fountain and fixed on the downward shaft. The closer he got, the farther down into the building he could see. About twenty feet below the level he was standing on was a holographic number ‘17’ in glowing green, about ten feet high and slowly revolving in midair. Behind it, the shaft opened into another level, and he thought he saw the bottom edges of shopfronts set back maybe twenty feet from the edge of the shaft.

    He’d seen light-wells before, but this one was a doozy, especially since it lacked both an overhead skylight and anything resembling a safety rail. In fact, the only visible safety feature was a low curb around it, more a gentle upward slope than any real attempt to stop people from getting too close. As Jericho watched, a guy got up from his table and strolled over to the shaft … then stepped straight off the edge.

    He spotted the discreet sign at about the same time as his G-sense kicked in. Gravity, his power told him in no uncertain terms, was going absolutely nuts in that hole. Not only was it not behaving itself, but the type of misbehavior was in constant flux. Seeking sanity out of the madness, he focused on the sign. It was a series of diagrams, essentially explaining that the direction of travel depended on which way the arms were held. Raise one or both arms, and he would go up. Lower them, and he would go down. Aim them in any given direction, and he would move in that direction. For those with bulky objects to carry, one arm would do. Sounds simple enough. It was, after all, a more effective version of what Jericho himself had been doing since he’d gotten his powers.

    Beside the sign was a simple metal podium with a handprint embossed on top, and the words ‘YOU ARE HERE’ engraved below the handprint. He paused to glance at that, but Thomas tugged at his arm. “Come on,” the younger man urged. “Haven’t you ever wanted to go flying?”

    Well, of course he had. Keeping a careful grip on the satchel strap—the absolute last thing he wanted to do was accidentally drop it and have some curious person open it to find out who the owner was—he moved up to the edge of the vertical drop and leaned out to look down.

    As far as he could tell, the cylindrical shaft went all the way to ground level. The distance from the floor of one level to the ceiling of the next was about thirty feet, as near as he could estimate. As Thomas had pointed out, the floor-to-ceiling space for each story was only about five feet less. He wasn’t sure why they needed such high ceilings or so much space in between, but there was probably a good reason for it somewhere. Utopia City was like that.

    This close to the edge, he could see that the number ‘17’ was repeated on the near side of the shaft. Off-set by ninety degrees and about fifty feet farther down, the number ‘16’ showed up on either side of the shaft, this time in blue. Odd floors in green, even in blue. Got it.

    The size of the numbers, and the thickness of the floors, were about the least impressive thing he was seeing right now. The most impressive thing was the sheer number of people darting every which way through empty air, seemingly at random, like fish inside an insanely expensive aquarium. He could only imagine that it became more crowded during daylight hours but even as it was, he had no idea how people were not colliding with one another.

    This close, he could feel the G-field affecting his body. His powers could ‘see’ about the first fifteen feet or so and determine which way the artificial gravity would allow him to go. The problem was, as far as he could tell, if he stepped over the edge, he’d be buoyed up like a ball on a waterspout.

    “Come on, scaredy-cat!” Beside him, Thomas let himself fall forward into the shaft, arms pointed downward. Jericho watched as the artificial gravity reshaped itself around the younger man, adjusting itself second by second so that he could travel in that direction. In another instant, Thomas was beyond the reach of Jericho’s G-sense.

    Oh, well, he thought. If he can do it … Holding the satchel to his chest just in case, he stepped over the edge and fell feet-first. According to the sign, if he kept his free hand down, he would travel downward, so he did; the gravitational field almost miraculously adjusting to let this happen (at a maximum rate of fifty feet per second, his power helpfully informed him). Experimentally, he raised his arm so his free hand was above his waist, and he felt his downward travel slow. Raising the arm to shoulder height brought him to a stop.

    All around him, he could feel the local gravity twisting into a pretzel as it boosted some people upward, allowed others to ‘fall’ downward or moved yet others around the outside perimeter of the cylindrical shaft; all according to which way they were holding their hand relative to their body. We’re being scanned, all of us, he realized. Somewhere in this building, a computer is modeling every single person here in real time, deciding which way to move us, and ensuring nobody collides with anyone else. That level of processing power was a sobering thought.

    Reaching out with his G-sense, he took hold of the local gravitational field. It felt … soft. Pliable, even. People were darting past him, both up and down, so he didn’t mess with it, but he was pretty sure he could make the field do what he wanted it to, rather than the controlling computer. A slow smile spread across his face. I’m gonna have to come back to this place.

    “Isn’t this the best thing ever?” asked Thomas, coming up from below and drifting to a stop beside him. “I’ve always wanted to fly like Challenger or Lady Quantum. The building spits you out if you play around in here too long, but it’s a lot of fun until then.”

    “It’s definitely worth it,” Jericho agreed. “Thanks for inviting me.”

    “You’re welcome.” Thomas grinned and tapped him on the shoulder. “Tag; you’re it.” As Jericho turned in surprise, he raised his arms and ‘flew’ upward.

    “Hey!” protested Jericho, but Thomas was already far out of reach. “So, it’s like that, is it?” Jericho felt an irrepressible grin spreading across his face. “You’re on.” Throwing his free arm out with his fingers pointed Superman-style, he gave chase.

    The younger man had obviously been doing this for some time, as his finesse with the moves soon showed. Jericho’s experience with gliding stood him in good stead, but he was unused to the freedom inherent in not having to worry about stall speeds. The result was that while his caution made him technically a better flyer than Thomas, he was still outclassed by the flamboyance that his new friend brought to the ad-hoc aerial playground.

    All that aside, he fell in love with the whole sensation of powered flight within the first thirty seconds. Being able to climb, dive and turn with impunity was what he’d dreamed of since first getting his powers. While he knew he’d probably never get the ability to fly under his own steam, this was a very acceptable second best. As he pursued Thomas, and was chased in turn, he found himself laughing from sheer exuberance. Of all the things he’d thought he would be doing when he came to Utopia City, this was not one of them.

    Eventually, Thomas veered off from their game, and angled over to land on what turned out to be floor twelve. Following him, Jericho landed easily on his feet. “That was amazing,” he gasped, almost out of breath from laughing.

    “I know, right?” Thomas was red in the face, quite possibly due to his own laughter at Jericho’s initial midair clumsiness. He fanned himself theatrically with his hand. “I’m glad you like it. It’s one of my favorite places in Utopia.”

    “I can see why. That was the most fun I’ve had in … well, ever.” As Jericho caught his breath, he took the time to look around and for the first time noticed something else that would normally have had his jaw falling open with astonishment.

    There were people walking on the ceiling.

    Upside-down shoppers, nearly fifteen feet over his head, were strolling in and out of the corridors that led off the open area, pushing levitating shopping carts as if what they were doing was perfectly normal. He would’ve taken it for the effect of a spectacularly impressive mirror image, except that what the people were doing at his level didn’t match what he was seeing overhead.

    There were only three explanations for this: one, it was some kind of holographic art. Two, he was seeing things. Three … he consulted his G-sense. Immediately, he got a result. From about twelve feet up, the local gravity field was reversed, so that people beyond that boundary considered ‘down’ to be ‘up’, and vice versa. Basically, it seemed to be a vastly more powerful version of what his push-tags did. His eyes weren’t playing tricks; there really were people walking on the ceiling.

    “That …” he said faintly to Thomas. “… ceiling thing. Is it all over the mall?”

    “The shopping levels, yes.” Thomas grinned. “Pretty cool, hey?”

    “Yeah. Cool.” Jericho shook his head. The ceiling heights made a lot more sense now. With people walking both on the floor and the ceiling, possibly carrying unwieldy purchases, having a lot of excess headroom could be useful for avoiding accidents.

    As for the corridors themselves, they were built on a hexagonal cross-section with holographic signage floating halfway between the floor and what his brain insisted on calling the ‘other’ floor; some upright, some upside down. He watched as one shopper approached a doorway angled downward into the corridor wall. The doors slid open, but as the woman stepped over the threshold, her entire body swung forward to an angle that looked entirely unbalanced to Jericho’s eye. Then she walked downward into the shop, still tilted forward at that absurd angle.

    “Gravity adjustment?” asked Jericho.

    Thomas nodded, having followed his line of sight. “Gravity adjustment.” He indicated the angled shopfronts. “Twice as many shops, twice as many people shopping at once. Whatever floor you’re walking on is normal to you. After a while, I think people just stop noticing.”

    Jericho blinked and shook his head again. It was all too reminiscent of an Escher painting, or perhaps that David Bowie movie with the crazy puppets. He watched, bemused, as a man with a briefcase stepped off the ceiling into the drop-shaft and was immediately reoriented into a feet-down posture before rising out of sight. He still didn’t really know what the rules for moving within the gravity-controlled shaft were, but he was happy so long as the monitoring computer did.

    “This city,” he said. “Wow.” He gestured at the corridors then at the drop-shaft. “That’s just weird, but this is way too much fun. I think I’m addicted.”

    “Me too.” Thomas sighed. “It’s one of the few things I’m going to really miss when I leave.”

    The comment, offhand though it was, reminded Jericho of the serious discussion earlier, and of his own responsibilities. “Yeah,” he agreed. “And I’d really love to spend more time with you right now. Explore the place and check out your favorite shops.”

    Thomas nodded soberly. “I sense a ‘but’ coming up.” His hand found Jericho’s and squeezed it.

    An unhappy smile crossed Jericho’s face. “I’d be happy to stay out all night with you. But … I really should be getting back to the Oaklands and getting some sleep. If I’m not up bright and early for the interview in the morning, Luke’ll be fixing to barge into my room, drag me out of bed and toss me in the shower on full Arctic.”

    “Oh, God. I’d pay money to see that.” Thomas let out an unseemly snort of amusement. “But you’re right. I could chat all night too, but I really should be heading back to the others. They’re likely to get into all sorts of trouble if I’m not there to keep an eye on them. Besides, I want to make sure Ray made it back okay.” He patted his hip pocket. “I turned on my phone when we got the cab. Someone would’ve texted if he didn’t make it, but I just want to be sure anyway.”

    “I hear that.” Jericho nodded toward the drop-shaft. “Shall we go up and get a cab?”

    Thomas’ smile held a tinge of sadness. “Yeah, let’s do that.”

    Clasped hands raised together as in victory, they stepped off the edge. Gravity bore them upward, side by side.

    Around them, unheeding, the business of the South Side Mall went on.
     
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  21. Threadmarks: Chapter Twenty-Eight: Post Mortem
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Post Mortem

    Jericho and Thomas climbed out of the cab, then moved away from the stand as the flying car took off again. It wasn’t the same taxi stand they’d left from, but Thomas had assured Jericho that he wouldn’t have far to walk. The street was deserted, save for hover-cars ‘parked’ here and there at the curb, powered down and resting on their landing struts.

    “I guess this is good night, then,” Jericho said awkwardly. “I had a really good time. Thank you for showing me the Mall.” He had a hard time correlating the technological masterpiece that he’d just seen with the fact that the Southsiders did business literally next door (as opposed to lurking in an abandoned warehouse somewhere) but he supposed that criminals could handle high-tech just as well. Besides, he didn’t want to think about that right now.

    “Me too.” Thomas seemed reluctant to let his hand go. “I’m glad you were there to rescue Ray. And the rest of it. Thanks for, well, everything.”

    “Well, I haven’t done the rest of it yet.” Jericho reluctantly patted the satchel. “Gimme a second to costume up, and I’ll get your number, okay?” He inclined his head toward a nearby alleyway; it was better to get out of sight than risk being caught on a street camera.

    “Okay.” Thomas flushed a little as he let Jericho’s hand go, fingers trailing against one another. They entered the alley, and Jericho unzipped the satchel.

    The mask went on first, then the jacket. His heroic identity in place, Jericho took a little more time getting his gloves and utility belt on right. Then he opened the pouch that held his notepad and pen and took them out.

    “Are you sure Luke will be up for this?” Thomas still seemed uncertain about this.

    “Sure as I can be.” Jericho essayed a grin. “I’ll just have a talk with him before I go to the interview. If I know him, I’ll only need to drop a few hints about how this’ll piss off the local cops.” He flipped back the cover of the notepad and clicked the pen. “Ready.”

    Slowly, Thomas read his number off his phone, and Jericho copied it down. In return, Jericho recited his own number from memory, giving Thomas time to tap it in.

    “He’s pretty damn big, as I recall.” Thomas gave Jericho a grin. “If anyone could get the Southsiders to pay attention, he could.”

    “Luke is good at that,” agreed Jericho as he tucked the pen and pad away. “Well, I’ll see you tomorrow night, and let you know how it went.” Going by reflex, he held out his hand to shake. He was unprepared for Thomas to pull him close again.

    “I had a really good time tonight,” whispered the younger man, and planted a firm kiss on his lips.

    “Uh, I did too,” stammered Jericho, feeling his cheeks heating up all over again. He watched a sly grin dance on Thomas’ lips, and wondered if the guy was deliberately trying to fluster him. If he was, it was working. “I’ll, uh, I’ll see you later.”

    “See you then,” said Thomas, taking a few steps back. “Say hi to your cousin for me.”

    “I will.” Taking a deep breath, Jericho reduced his personal weight to its minimum, and jumped upward, reaching for the edge of the roof overhang above them. Grasping it, he swung up and landed on his feet. When he looked down again, Thomas waved once, then turned and headed out of the alley. Jericho watched him as long as he could, then looked around to center himself.

    A lot had happened in the last hour or so, and he needed time to think it all through. But he could do that once he got back to the Oaklands. It only took a few seconds to secure his wing-tails, then he took a run-up and leaped lightly into the air, aiming for the next building. Not even bothering to glide across the gap, he covered the thirty feet and touched down on the next rooftop with ample room to spare. This was the sort of roof-running he’d practiced when he first made up his mind that he was going to be a superhero, and he could almost do it in his sleep.

    Running, leaping, landing, he crossed two more rooftops in the same manner. Deciding that he’d earned a little goofiness, he pulled a somersault on the way across to the third one, taking care to keep his arms in close to his sides so he wouldn’t accidentally catch the air and stall out in mid-leap. He would’ve repeated the stunt at the next jump, but there was a wider road coming up and he didn’t want to screw up in view of the public.

    Buildings two and three times as tall as the warehouses dominated the skyline across the road, with the ten-story apartment building visible behind the nearest ones. And the Oaklands is just past that. Along with most of the high-rise architecture in Utopia City, each building (along with its attendant holographic signage) looked like the architect had been aiming to make the cover of Science Fiction Weekly, or some similar publication. He honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if most of them had succeeded.

    Accelerating to a sprint, he kicked off and arrowed into the air, angling slightly upward. His much reduced effective weight let him go farther before he would need to deploy the gliding surfaces and thus introduce extra drag. This street was seventy feet wide if it was an inch, and he made it about thirty before he began to angle downward. Unlike when he’d jumped off the apartment building earlier, his momentum consisted solely of what he’d supplied himself, and there was only about twenty-five feet between himself and the smooth surface of the street below.

    Spreading his arms, he caught the breeze and farther flattened out the already-shallow parabola he was describing through the night air. Below him, moving as silently as he himself was, civilian maglev cars cruised along the street on their own business. None of them seemed to react as he glided overhead, which proved that the citizens of Utopia City either didn’t look up, or they were far more used to seeing Enabled out and about than he was.

    Seconds later, he arrived at his target building. His glue-tags performing their duty efficiently, he ascended the sheer wall with little in the way of effort. By the time he reached the roof, sixty feet up, he was barely breathing hard. All the same, he stopped to admire the view and review his churning thoughts.

    When I set out to go patrol the Market, did I expect to see Thomas? It was a valid question. After all, Thomas had said he lived near there. Did I go there to see him?

    No, he decided. He’d even forgotten the guy’s name momentarily, which would’ve been embarrassing at the best of times, even if he wasn’t a mental-based prodigy like some he’d heard of. Transit’s words had inspired him to go patrolling, but he’d been more interested in discovering the city than meeting anyone in particular.

    Of course, seeing Thomas had led to Jericho beating up on two undercover cops—he was still internally cringing over that little exercise in crossed wires—and then finding out about the Survivors. And offering to help them escape the city. Which had led to the kiss from Thomas, and then the side trip to the South Side Mall. And the second kiss.

    Any one of these incidents, twelve hours previously, he would’ve dismissed as highly unlikely. Looking at the entire chain of events, his credulity would’ve been strained to the breaking point and beyond. But they had happened, and he wouldn’t take any of it back, except maybe when he’d tossed Forrester in the canal.

    A grin creased one corner of his mouth. Nah, he was being an asshat. He deserved it.

    But even taking that into account, there was still the issue with the Survivors, and what he’d pledged to do about it. On the one hand, they were breaking the law; on the other, they weren’t being given the option not to. So, while his plan to sneak them out of town was almost certainly illegal in and of itself (he wasn’t sure about the specific details) he considered it the lesser of two evils.

    There was definitely a chance this would get back to Force Majeure and screw with his chances of joining. On the other hand, the only commitment he’d made in that regard was to attend the interview. He wanted to join, but he’d already said he’d help the Survivors out. If events ended up with him being kicked to the curb over something like this, it would be a sign that he wasn’t a good fit for them. Which would hurt a lot; he wasn’t denying that. But just like he would never act against the best interests of Force Majeure once (if) they let him join, he couldn’t turn his back on the Survivors now. And whether he got into Force Majeure or not, there was still the other thing to think about. Specifically, the Thomas-shaped elephant in the room.

    He kissed me, twice. And I liked it, a lot.
    The trouble was, he wasn’t done with Stephen quite yet (even though he definitely wanted to be) and so following up on anything like that was right off the table. No matter how much he wanted to go back for thirds. If I did that, Stephen could definitely say I was cheating on him. He knew how his boyfriend thought. The slightest impropriety on his own part, in Stephen’s mind anyway, retroactively excuse every single time he’d stepped out on Jericho. I refuse to give him that satisfaction.

    Steering clear of any chance for Thomas to get that close again would be a little unpleasant, but his own personal honor demanded it. Of course, once he’d spoken to Stephen, he’d know where he stood. Taking a deep breath, he mentally dusted his hands off. Okay, that shit’s dealt with. So long as I don’t run into any other crises between here and my bed, I should be able to enjoy a few hours of sleep.

    Moving around the rooftop until he had a view of the sign over the Oaklands complex, he let his back-brain handle the calculations. It was about fifty yards away, half-obscured by the ten-story apartment block, but the other rooftop was twenty feet lower; the glide was definitely doable. A police hex thrummed overhead as he took his run-up and leaped out into empty air. Fortunately, it seemed that the Utopia City PD had gotten the message about him, as the blocky drone didn’t react to his apparent suicide attempt.

    This late at night, the air was still and cool for the most part, making it steady and reliable to glide in. He arrived on the roof of the Oaklands less than ten seconds later, his soft-soled boots barely making a sound as he touched down. With a feeling of almost coming home, he glanced around to make sure nobody was watching. The rooftop was broad and clear, making it easy to check, especially with the overhead glow from the holographic sign. There were only a few shadows around, and they weren’t all that deep.

    Reaching behind himself, he opened the long pouch at the back of his utility belt and extracted the rolled-up satchel once more. In a somewhat more leisurely fashion than he’d done with Thomas, he stored the belt and jacket in the satchel, then took his gloves off and stowed them in afterward. His phone, he figured, could stay in his belt pouch until he got inside. A tap of his finger reassured him that his MagCard was still in his pants pocket.

    “Whew,” he muttered as he glanced around one more time. An irrepressible grin flitted across his face as he reviewed the night’s events. Thomas was definitely someone he wanted to get to know better, once he’d dealt with the Stephen problem. But that was something he was going to have to sleep on. And of course, there was the interview tomorrow. Time for bed.

    Moving to the edge of the roof, he leaned over to look for the top of the access ladder. As he did so, he heard the unmistakable sound of a police siren. It was in the distance but getting closer. It sent a thrill through him, and just for a moment he was tempted to go see if he could locate the unit and offer assistance. Regretfully, he decided that his ignorance of the city’s geography and the fact that he was going to need some sleep before the interview meant that he’d have to give this one a miss.

    Locating the ladder, he climbed down to the appropriate floor, cheating a little with the satchel’s weight so it wouldn’t dangle too awkwardly and pull him off balance. There was a necessary pause while he pulled out the MagCard and swiped the exterior reader; the window swiveled around and allowed him entry. Stepping through, he swiped it closed once more. Only then did he remove his mask and stash it in the satchel. Challenger Act or no Challenger Act, illegal surveillance cameras were still within the realms of possibility, even in Utopia City.

    His apartment door was only a few yards down the corridor. As he came up to it, a musty odor reached his nostrils. Oh, great. Did I step in something? If he had, it wouldn’t be the first time. I’ll put my boots in the bathroom and clean them in the morning. But even as he formed the thought, he frowned. That almost smells like—

    Reflexively, he swiped to unlock the apartment door. As it opened, a wave of the same smell hit him, and he recognized it for what it was.
     
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  22. Threadmarks: Chapter Twenty-Nine: Worst Case
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    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Worst Case

    Blood.

    It is a smell that strikes to the very core of the human subconscious. Even people who have never experienced it before, and don’t know what it is, feel a sense of unease when they first scent its distinctive metallic tang.

    Jericho already knew it well, and terror surged into his throat like a living thing. The last time he’d felt fear on this scale was the night he’d been thrown from a building in downtown Savannah and gained his powers, but on that occasion he’d only had himself to worry about. Now, with the cloying odor of fresh carnage in his nostrils, he knew beyond all doubt that something terrible had happened within the apartment.

    Luke!” he screamed, eyes widening in a desperate attempt to discern more detail from the pattern of light and shadow that came in through the window. The satchel’s strap slipped from nerveless fingers and thudded to the floor as he lurched sideways, scrabbling frantically for the light switch he knew had to be there. “Luke! Bobbi! LUUUUKE!

    The lights flickered, as if reluctant to reveal the full horror of the scene to him. By the time they came on, Jericho was already moving forward, staring glassy eyed from one spot to another in search of what he already knew he didn’t want to see. His pulse thundered in his ears, and red tinged the edge of his vision. A tightness in his chest made it hard to breathe.

    Some part of his mind registered that Luke’s sofa-bed had still not been unfolded, but the cushions were lying in rags. The sheets were shredded and torn on the floor, and liberally stained with crimson. Feeling as though his feet were mired in concrete, he stumbled onward. “Luke!” he sobbed, trying to draw air into his lungs. Tears of anguish rose in his eyes, putting a haze over the room. “Bobbi!”

    Swiping the back of his hand over his eyes, he scrubbed the tears away and cleared his vision. A cry of animal pain burst from him as he finally saw Luke, sprawled on the floor outside Bobbi’s bedroom door. The worst of his fears had been realized; his vision narrowed until all he could see was his cousin. In another instant, barely aware that he’d moved, he was kneeling next to Luke. The spreading pool of blood began to soak into the knees of his pants, but his entire attention was focused on his cousin’s face. One eye was obscured by a mass of gore, but the other was open. For a single heart-stopping moment, Luke met Jericho’s agonized gaze.

    “Luke,” Jericho croaked, taking his cousin’s large hands in his own. The cooling blood was sticky against his hands, and he saw that Luke was still clutching splintered lengths of wood. “Luke, I’m here.” But with that movement, Luke’s head lolled to one side, his single visible eye now staring sightlessly at the far wall. The brief flash of hope drained away, leaving a dreadful certainty in its place.

    “No …” keened Jericho. “No. No. No. Not you, Luke. Not you.” Leaning forward, he cupped Luke’s head in his hands, lifting it up again, searching vainly for any signs of life. Looking down at Luke’s body, he tasted bile in his throat as he saw the many stab wounds and slashes that had been inflicted on his cousin. Luke was soaked from head to toe in his own blood; his previously off-white wife-beater was stained dark red with it. A coil of blue intestine protruded obscenely through one of the larger wounds. When Jericho tried for a pulse—knowing he would never find one but hoping against hope anyway—he discovered that Luke’s throat was one huge gash from side to side. There was no heartbeat, no breath, no hope of a miraculous last-minute rescue. The agony of wrenching loss behind his breastbone doubled him over, until his forehead pressed against Luke’s. “No …” It was a primal plea.

    Bobbi. Driving back the shrieking voices of horror in his head, he forced himself to stumble to his feet. Despite everything he might hope to the contrary, Luke was dead; Bobbi may yet be alive. Leaving Luke’s side was the hardest thing he’d ever done, but a hero’s duty was to the living. Dimly, he was aware that his most extreme emotional responses were being blunted, probably by the same Prodigy abilities that let him push through physical trauma. The pain was worse than anything he’d experienced in his life to this point, but he found himself able to remain somewhat functional instead of curling into a ball of pain and loss and howling his agony to an uncaring universe.

    This awareness didn’t make it any easier to stumble into Bobbi’s room, but he managed it somehow. “Bobbi?” he called, the sound barely making it past the painful lump in his throat. When he put one hand on the sagging door, it fell off its one remaining hinge onto the floor behind him; such was the intensity of his focus, he barely noticed the muted boom. “Bobbi?” he rasped again.

    There was no body on the bed or the floor; all he initially saw were her glasses, bent and crushed into the carpet. Did she get away somehow? For one cruel moment, hope assailed him until he kicked something and saw it was the door to the closet, ripped clean off its hinges. Grimacing as tears ran freely down his cheeks again, he took one more reluctant dragging step toward the closet and saw her.

    She hadn’t been able to arm herself, and his heart lurched to see the desperate fight she’d put up anyway. The tattered and gore-soaked sleeves of her pajama top revealed that she’d taken defensive wounds, and he thought he saw a darkening under her fingernails in the dim light. Through the overwhelming waves of grief and uncomprehending disbelief that assailed him, a tiny spark of satisfaction glowed sharp; even facing certain death, Bobbi had marked her killer, had snatched his DNA.

    Her face had borne the brunt of the attack. A wave of nausea passed through him as he saw that the attacker had sliced her eyes and slashed her across the mouth until her lips were no longer recognizable. It was no consolation at all that her suffering had been ended with a single efficient stab up under the breastbone.

    Ignoring his own tears, he knelt before the closet and reached inside. With trembling fingers, he tried for a pulse, but it was no more present than it had been in Luke. Whoever had invaded the apartment during Jericho’s sojourn away had achieved their goal, though Jericho’s grief-numbed mind could make neither head nor tail of why. Why these two? Why this apartment? Why this night? It wasn’t, couldn’t be, a simple robbery gone wrong. Whoever had come in here had done so with the specific aim of killing everyone in the apartment. Most criminals, in Jericho’s experience, shied away from murder. This was more like the act of a terror villain, or one of the Madness, than a startled burglar.

    And then, as anger began to take over and clear his mind, Jericho realized one more thing. While Bobbi’s skin was cooling, it was still warm to the touch. This meant that whoever was responsible had left the apartment mere minutes before Jericho arrived. I can still catch them!

    The paralysis of the pain he felt was replaced by crimson rage and a razor-sharp need to hunt down whoever had done this and make them pay. Staggering to his feet, he lunged out of the bedroom. He wanted desperately to stay with his cousin, but nothing would bring Luke or Bobbi back to life, while catching their killer would let him do something. As he vaulted the length of the room, he fancied he heard what he would forever after consider to be Luke’s last words: Go git th’ sumbitch, cuz.

    Oh, I intend to.
    The way Jericho’s emotions were roiling right then, the asshat would be lucky to live long enough to stand trial. He didn’t have an exact plan for what he intended to do to the guy when he caught him, but it was going to be extremely violent and probably fatal. He flicked a push-tag at the MagCard where it lay on the floor, then reached down for the strap of the costume satchel as the card smacked into his palm.

    The front door to the apartment burst open with shocking abruptness, almost in his face. Uniformed cops filled the doorway. Beyond them, more crowded in the corridor. He could see guns in hands, already beginning to angle toward him. Adrenaline surged, slowing the world to a crawl. He left the bag where it lay and straightened up fast, a G-tag forming in his hand. Shouts rang in his ears.

    “Down on the floor!”

    “Don’t move!”

    “Hands in the air!”

    Thoughts seemed to ooze through his head with the slowness of molasses.

    These guys are never going to listen to reason.

    I’m going to have to go through them or past them.

    There’s too many to get past.

    Through them it is.

    Wait, what the hell is—


    One officer squeezed the trigger on something shaped like a pistol, but made of plastic and lacking a muzzle aperture. It gave an electronic chirp; the acrid scent of ozone abruptly overrode the cloying effluvium in his nostrils. Whatever this was, he didn’t like it. He tried to throw himself aside, but it was too late.

    tac-tac-tac-tac

    White fire lanced through his nervous system, turning his world into a tracery of agony. The first jolt seized up every muscle. The second dropped him to his knees. The third left him twitching face-down on the carpet.

    His last coherent thought was: but I’m one of the good guys—

    tac-tac-tac-tac



    - End of Part Two -

    https://imgur.com/sNeYtES
     
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  23. Threadmarks: Chapter Thirty: Presumption of Innocence
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    PART THREE

    Murder, Most Foul


    And the hunt begins.
    - Sgt Diane Finlay, UCPD (DL)

    God damn it, Independence.
    - Relentless

    Problems solved; solutions expedited …
    - inscription on a business card


    30
    Presumption of Innocence

    When Jericho’s mind started functioning again, he found himself face-down on the carpet. A cuff had been tightened around his left wrist, and his right arm was being pulled up and back, no doubt to complete the act of restraining him. “No!” he shouted, twisting and bucking to try to free himself.

    “Whoa, crap!” Clearly caught off guard, the police officer who’d been kneeling beside him went sprawling. “He’s active, he’s active!”

    Fully aware that he wasn’t masked, and that he was probably pushing the envelope on being outed with his faster-than-normal recovery from the electric shock, Jericho nevertheless knew he had to get the upper hand. He didn’t know how long he’d been down, but it couldn’t have been long. If I can get out of this right now, I might have half a chance at catching up with the killer.

    Rolling away from the cop onto his back, he came to his feet fast; the way he’d been trained in his Krav Maga lessons. Still, the cuff dangling from his left wrist reminded him that he was far from out of the woods. He could certainly fight his way out, but this would assuredly destroy his secret identity in the process. If he could just talk to them and make them listen, he’d be home free.

    The officer who’d tasered him before—it had to be some kind of taser, even without the trademark wires—looked taken aback at what was going on but began to swing the weapon back toward him anyway. Another one started pulling an identical weapon out of its holster. Events were rapidly spinning out of control. There was no way this was going to end well. He doubted they were of a mind to pay attention to anything he said. Nevertheless, he had to try.

    “I’m not—” Jericho reached the first cop and stepped past the taser, inside the officer’s reach. Taking control of the taser, he removed it from the cop’s grasp. As a continuation of the same move, he grasped the officer’s collar and turned with him. A vague idea that electricity could go straight through one person into another made him push the cop toward the second officer. “—the bad guy here!”

    tac-tac-tac-tac

    The police officer he’d shoved convulsed and went down, which meant that the uniforms weren’t particularly insulated against electricity. Just for an instant, Jericho considered firing back; after all, it wasn’t as though he could really hurt anyone by doing so. But attacking cops who were specifically doing their jobs went against the grain, even if it was him they were trying to arrest. He’d screwed up enough with the undercover cops at the Market; this time around, he wouldn’t even have the excuse of a misunderstood situation to fall back on.

    “Hold everything!” he yelled, tossing the liberated taser on the floor in front of him and raising his hands in surrender. “I didn’t do this! I just got home! I was on patrol—”

    Too late, he bit the words off, a sinking feeling manifesting behind his breastbone. Patrol. That was a word used by law enforcement, by the military … and by superheroes. All this, and I managed to out myself anyway. I am such a goddamn moron.

    The room went still, then someone pushed past the police officer who’d tried to taser him. Jericho tensed, but the man simply held up a wallet with a badge attached. Heavy-set and grizzled, he wore plain clothes and had a certain air of competence about him. “Detective Sergeant Stirling. Did you just say ‘patrol’?”

    Jericho stared at the badge. It seemed to be genuine, as far as he could tell in this situation. Surrounding an image of the Spire with the sunrise behind it were the words UTOPIA CITY DETECTIVE SERGEANT and a serial number.

    The detective sergeant tried again. “Is this a Challenger Act situation?”

    Crap. Definitely outed myself. The sinking feeling intensified. The thought of denying it crossed his mind very briefly, then he reminded himself that everyone in the room had heard it and they almost certainly had recorders running, if not actual bodycams. Slowly, he nodded. “Yeah.” A memory stirred in the back of his mind. “I’m gonna need a Designated Liaison.” To his relief, the officer who’d been tasered groaned and sat up, shaking his head groggily.

    “Shit,” muttered Stirling. Turning his head, he looked toward the bedroom door. “Hey, guys—”

    The moment Stirling’s attention left him, Jericho made a move for the door. The killer’s got to be close by, and if I can get past these idiots—

    “Whoa, hold up there, champ.” The detective sergeant interposed himself in front of the doorway, showing more situational awareness and faster reflexes than Jericho had anticipated. As he was too solidly built for Jericho to easily slip past, this brought the incipient escape attempt to an immediate halt. “At least ’til you get a chance to talk to that DL you just requested.”

    “Get out of the way!” shouted Jericho. “We can deal with the Designated Liaison later! The guy who did this is out there! He can’t have gotten far!”

    Stirling shook his head. “No can do. Until we get this cleared up, you’re a suspect. We can’t let you go anywhere.” His voice was firm and fatherly, but it was the last thing Jericho needed to hear right now.

    “But he’s getting away! You know he is!” Jericho fought down the desperate impulse to disable the guy anyway and make a break for it. The trouble was, they were at least listening to him now; decking one of them would make all that effort null and void. If he was going to chase down Luke’s killer, he knew he’d find it much easier without the police chasing him down.

    The detective sergeant let out a short aggravated huff of breath, then raised his voice. “Someone find me a Designated Liaison, right now.” His eyes never shifting from Jericho, he reached up and clicked a button on a rectangular object clipped to his lapel, then pressed a finger to the low-profile earpiece he was wearing. “Stirling to Hotel X-Ray Three-Four-One Actual. Report status of drone, over.”

    A crisp voice emanated from the tiny speaker on Stirling’s shoulder. ”Hotel X-Ray Three-Four-One is orbiting Oaklands complex, as per orders, detective sergeant. UV, IR and low-light scanning. No unknowns spotted on street or nearby rooftops, over.

    “What the hell does that even mean?” demanded Jericho. “What’s Hotel X-Ray … oh.” It wasn’t until he said the words out loud that the meaning became clear. “You’ve got a hex up there?” He hadn’t even considered that they might use them for more than enforcing air-traffic rules.

    “We do. And there’s more.” Detective Sergeant Stirling raised his finger to cut off further protests, then pressed the earpiece again. “Stirling to Three-Four-One. You were recording from the moment the drone showed up, right? Over.”

    That’s an affirmative, sergeant. We have all the imagery, over.

    “Good.” Stirling showed his teeth in what might have been a smile. “Run the infrared back as far as it goes. If our perp walked out, he would’ve left an IR trail. Find me that trail, over.” Turning to Jericho, he shrugged. “It won’t be a strong one but if he left on foot, it’ll give us a line on which way he went, rough shoe size, stride length, the whole nine yards.”

    His throat tight with several conflicting emotions, Jericho nodded. He wanted to be the one to catch the killer, not the cops! In his current state of mind, it was a toss-up whether the guy would survive to stand trial, and right now Jericho was perfectly okay with that. Luke was kin. You mess with my kin, you mess with me. It had always been that way.

    The radio speaker crackled. ”Roger, rolling back IR recordings. And … we have a hit. Footprints, leading out to the curb. Looks like the guy was favoring his left leg, over.

    “Which way do they go from there?” pressed Stirling. “Across the street? Left? Right?”

    They don’t. They stop at the edge of the street, like he got in a car, over.

    “Excellent. Three-Four-One, have someone follow that up for me. Stirling, out.” The detective sergeant released the earpiece and dusted his hands off, looking satisfied. Almost as an afterthought, he turned the lapel speaker off.

    Jericho stared at Stirling, wondering why he seemed so pleased. “Got in a car? He just walked out … and got in a car?” He couldn’t believe it. Visions of chasing down the perpetrator were fading as he took in the new information. “Do you have street-cams covering the area? Can you find out where it went? Who owns it?” It seemed improbable that a city so technologically advanced wouldn’t have camera systems in use on its streets.

    Stirling put his hand up, bringing Jericho’s questions to a halt. “There isn’t any public surveillance directly outside this complex for several reasons, but they couldn’t have gotten off this section of street without being imaged from at least three directions. Plus, cars pull power from the municipal energy net via inductance from the street, so they can be tracked to a certain extent. We can get back results from both of those in just a few minutes, once we put in the request, which I just did. And the farther the perp goes in the car, the higher the statistical chance that one camera or another will get a good look at his face. We’re likely to get the ‘who’ and the ‘where’ at the same time.”

    “So, you know the killer just walked out and how to catch him.” Jericho spread his hands. “I’m right here, so I’m not the killer. Can I go already?” He gestured with his left arm meaningfully, making the cuff hanging from his wrist swing back and forth.

    “We know someone walked out,” Stirling corrected him. “It may have been the perp, but it could just as easily have been some guy visiting his girlfriend.” Jericho opened his mouth to protest, but Stirling talked over him. “Personally, I believe you. But regulations are regulations; cutting corners will drop both of us into a whole world of trouble. Talking about that …” He looked around. “Where the hell is that DL? Don’t we have one on site?”

    From the way people were looking around and shrugging—even the cop Jericho had used as a human shield, who was otherwise giving Jericho a dirty look—it quickly became clear that there were no Designated Liaisons in the vicinity.

    “Because of course not,” sighed the detective sergeant. “Okay, everyone but the paramedics back in the corridor. This whole apartment’s a crime scene until proven otherwise. CSI’s on hold ’til this is cleared up.” He rubbed his forehead with finger and thumb for just a moment, then pressed the earpiece. “Control, this is Detective Sergeant Stirling, attending ten-forty at Oaklands. We have need of a Designated Liaison. I say again, this is a Delta Lima situation, over.” Despite the aggravated expression on his face, his voice remained calm and professional.

    Jericho of course did not hear the reply, but the sergeant nodded as if by habit. “Copy incoming DL, fifteen mike. Will wait out.” Releasing the earpiece, he turned to two guys who were peering in the door, wearing paper booties and protective coveralls. As a mildly interesting detail, each of them sported a slimline backpack with a hard-shell cover. “Sorry guys, you know the drill. This shouldn’t take long.” Then he looked back toward the bedroom door. Toward Luke. “How’s it going over there?”

    Jericho’s attention was drawn that way despite not wanting to see Luke in that condition, and for the first time he noticed the two paramedics with his cousin. They were also wearing hard-shell backpacks, appropriately marked out with red crosses. The one on the right was holding an oxygen mask over Luke’s face, with a tube leading back into the pack. Spidery arms extending from the other paramedic’s pack were doing something to Luke, but Jericho couldn’t see what.

    Before he could begin to raise his hopes again, the paramedic on the left shook his head. “Vic’s deceased, I’m afraid. Unresponsive to resuscitation, catastrophic organ failure due to multiple penetrating trauma, blood pressure is basically zero, and core temp is dropping.” At some unseen command, the arms began to retract into the backpack. His colleague released the oxygen mask and it automatically reeled back into his pack via the hose. “Same deal with the female vic in the bedroom. I’m calling it. We’re going to need a second Rover.”

    I didn’t even see them go in the bedroom. Events were moving too fast for Jericho now. At that point, he was past caring who or what a ‘Rover’ was.

    “Son of a bitch,” muttered Stirling, shaking his head. “Okay, once the DL gets here, it shouldn’t be too hard for you to prove that you aren’t the perp, and then we can wait for the street boys to bring him in so you can ask him why.”

    “Yeah,” muttered Jericho. Not twenty-four hours earlier, Luke had caustically pointed out that Jericho had never even solved a murder. Now, he was setting out to solve the motive behind Luke’s murder, and he was barely able to string two thoughts together. Luke would’ve appreciated the irony; Jericho had a harder time doing it.

    And of course, Bobbi was dead as well. He felt bad for not having thought of her earlier. While he’d liked her and considered her a nice person, his connection with her was nothing like it had been with Luke. But he wasn’t about to forget her altogether. I swear to the both of you, no matter how long it takes, I will make sure this asshat goes down for what he’s done.

    When he took a deep breath to center himself, the rank odor of blood filled his nostrils. He’d thought that his exposure to the smell had deadened his senses to it, but he was badly wrong. Worse, the harder he tried to force control over himself, the more a massive tide of grief and anger threatened to sweep him under and the more his heartbeat thundered in his ears. “I gotta get out of here,” he mumbled, covering his nose and mouth with one hand.

    He made it three hasty steps into the corridor before his legs gave out. Falling to his hands and knees, he threw up everything in his stomach.
     
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  24. Threadmarks: Chapter Thirty-One: Clearing the Air
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Clearing the Air

    Jericho had no idea how long he spent hunched over in misery, his stomach muscles still cramping and heaving even though there was nothing but bile to bring up. Slowly, he brought them under control; that, at least, he could still do. “Oh, god,” he groaned softly.

    “How you feeling, champ? You all done?” Stirling patted him on the back, then offered him a plastic canteen and a handful of alcohol wipes. “Here, clean yourself up and get the taste out of your mouth.”

    Squatting back on his heels, Jericho first wiped his mouth clean then took a hefty swig of water from the canteen. Swirling it around in his mouth, he looked for someplace to spit.

    Divining his need, Stirling indicated the noisome mess on the floor before him. “Go ahead. It’s not like you’re gonna make it any worse.”

    It took two more rinses before Jericho was no longer tasting his own stomach acids. Then he took another mouthful and deliberately blew it out through his nose, flushing the water through his sinuses to get rid of the residue there. It stung like all crap, but that was at least something he could handle as a prodigy. There were a few spots on his arms and hands, which yielded easily to the alcohol wipes. However, this still left the problem of the mess of vomit in the hallway. He was keenly aware that all the cops in the vicinity had withdrawn to a discreet distance.

    Detective Sergeant Stirling, who’d winced at Jericho’s rough and ready approach to clearing out his sinuses, raised his eyebrows. “Better now?” At Jericho’s nod, he gestured toward the wall of the corridor. “You’re gonna want to step back a bit.” Looking down the corridor, he made a beckoning gesture and raised his voice. “Okay, sixteen! Cleanup time!”

    Jericho looked around to see one of the automated room-service carts approaching. As far as he could tell, it was the same one that had welcomed them to the Oaklands. He backed away from the mess on the floor, watching incuriously as spinning brushes unfolded from the front of the cart.

    “Spillage detected. Cleaning in operation. Please stand clear.” The cart moved up to the mess, brushes deftly directing all the stray splatters into the center of its path. It kept rolling forward steadily, and he heard a gurgling noise from beneath. Where it went, it left a clean path behind.

    Back and forth the cart tracked, doing a far more thorough job than Jericho would have under the circumstances. By the time it was finished, the floor was pristine; a couple of jets of air freshener had even disposed of the last of the smell. “Spillage removed. New spillage detected within apartment one-two-zero-four. Permission requested to enter apartment one-two-zero-four and clean spillage.”

    “Ah, no. Permission not given.” Stirling watched the cart carefully, as if he were worried that it would charge past him and start mopping up evidence anyway. “You can go now. We’ll call for a cleanup when we need one.”

    “Permission to clean spillage not given. Room Service one-six requested to leave vicinity. Is that your requirement?”

    “Yes,” the detective sergeant replied firmly. “That is my requirement.”

    “Thank you. Have a pleasant morning.” The cart rolled onto the strip of linoleum and trundled away down the corridor from whence it had come.

    Jericho watched it go. “Handy,” he observed, unable to muster more interest than that.

    “Yeah, they are. A bit eager to please, but you learn to deal with that. That’s the Oaklands all over,” Stirling pointed at a discreetly placed air vent. “Air intake for climate control. They’ve got molecular filters inside, with real-time analysis going on twenty-four-seven. If certain molecules get past a given concentration, a call gets automatically placed. For puke, one of their cleaning carts shows up. For blood, we show up. But you don’t care about that right now, do you?”

    “Not particularly,” Jericho conceded. He realized he could’ve made a break for it any time the cart was working, but what was the point? The cops were tracking the murderer down without requiring assistance from him. It helped to know that the guy would soon be behind bars (if they even used cells with bars in this goddamn city) but his mind kept circling the drain with a single heartbreaking mantra: Luke’s dead. Luke’s dead. Luke’s dead. He had no idea how Olivia was going to take the news, or Uncle Leroy and Aunt Ellie, or Serena. Hell, he still didn’t know how he was going to cope. It was too much, too big to handle all at once.

    Slumping back against the wall, he let himself slide down until he was sitting on the floor, his elbows resting on his knees. Bowing his head forward, he covered it with his arms, the handcuff on his left wrist pressing cool against the skin beside his ear. He had no idea what he was going to do now. What he was supposed to do. It was his fault Luke had come to Utopia City. His fault Luke was dead. If I’d just let myself be happy in Savannah, Luke would still be alive. Could he even do this anymore? Did he deserve to be in Force Majeure? Eyes open or closed, it didn’t matter; all he could see was Luke’s face in that instant after he realized his cousin was dead.

    A fumbling at his wrist distracted him and he looked up to see Stirling unlocking the cuff. “Can’t have you walking off with this, champ,” the detective sergeant pointed out. A click, and the heavy metal came free. He moved away then, but didn’t go too far.

    Jericho was acutely aware that the guy was keeping a close eye on him, even as he stood chatting with the CSI crew. Nobody tried to talk to Jericho, which he counted as a blessing. If I’d come straight back here after meeting Transit, he raged at himself. I would’ve been here when the murderer showed up. Things would’ve gone a whole lot differently. Round and round his mind went, driving his thoughts in ever-tighter spirals. Why did it even happen? Was this guy after Luke, or Bobbi … or me? Or was it a case of mistaken identity? He simply could not comprehend the level of savagery in the attack being directed against a total stranger.

    A thought struck him, and he raised his head. “Detective Sergeant.” His voice was scratchy; in anticipation of what was to come, his throat already felt raw. Tears were threatening to fall. Many, many tears. But he couldn’t let it happen; not yet.

    Stirling turned toward him; compassion written across his features. “Yeah, what’s the problem?”

    Jericho nodded at the door to the apartment. “You didn’t kick it in. How did you get it open?” He asked the question, not despite the fact that Luke lay dead in the apartment beyond, but because of it. If Luke’s killer was to be brought to justice—whatever form that took—then he needed to understand more pieces of the puzzle. How the police had gotten the door open possibly had a bearing on how the killer had let himself in.

    Stirling tapped a flat pouch on his belt. “Police override card. We all carry ’em. Biometrically coded like the MagCards, so only authorized police officers can use ’em. Why do you … ah.” He looked over at the door, then at Jericho. “You’re wondering if whoever did this used a card like that.” He rubbed his neatly trimmed gray-shot beard reflectively. “Well, it’s possible. But using a cop override card automatically sends a complete report of what door was overridden and who was holding it at the time, back to the UCPD headquarters. We’ve got people whose job is to find reports like that and link them to ongoing cases. Nothing like that’s popped up for us. However that door got opened, it wasn’t with a legal override.”

    “How about an illegal override?” persisted Jericho. “Your tech’s amazing, but what one person can program, another person can hack. What if someone made an override card that acted like the ones you use, except it didn’t report to anyone?” The idea was scary. In fact, it was terrifying. A cold-blooded murderer loose in Utopia City, able to walk through any electronic security? Nobody would be safe.

    Stirling raised his shaggy eyebrows. “Son, I’m gonna give you the benefit of the doubt, and assume you’re not thinkin’ straight. The guy who designed the overrides is the same one who designed the MagCards.” He paused expectantly.

    Jericho stared back at him until the penny dropped. “Oh. The Technologist.” It was obvious when he thought about it. Equally obvious was the fact that he hadn’t been thinking about it, until right now.

    “You got it.” Stirling nodded. “A lot of artificers build stuff that us normals scratch our heads over. The Technologist builds stuff that other artificers go nuts trying to duplicate. He gave us the MagCard and the override about thirteen years ago, and if they were in any way hackable or able to be duplicated, we woulda heard about it by now. Unless nobody used the hacked version, ever, there’d be quirks and glitches in the system that we could backtrack. And can you imagine someone building something like that and never using it?”

    “Damn it, no. I can’t.” Jericho shook his head. “Okay, it wasn’t an override card, and nobody busted the door in. Which means it was opened from the inside. Pretty sure none of us knew anyone in Utopia City. Which means they either let the killer in, begging the question of why, or there’s an Enabled in town who can bypass locked doors without leaving a mark on them. And you’d know more about that side of things than I would.”

    “That was something I was going to ask you later but sure, this works.” Stirling was holding an electronic pad, made small by his beefy hand. His fingers tapped nimbly over its screen, then he looked over it at Jericho. “I can check on the Enabled thing but for now, you’re certain neither of your friends knew anyone in Utopia? Or had someone meeting them, or joining them?”

    Jericho blinked. The question had cleared his mind, leaving potential answers he didn’t like. “I …” Luke had to have been here to meet with the Southsiders. There weren’t many other reasons for his presence in the city. But how did he even admit that he knew of his cousin’s criminal leanings? And why would they have even come to the Oaklands to kill him? “… I have no idea.”

    “Damn.” Stirling folded the pad over like a wallet and slid it into a pouch on his belt. “Still, it’s something we can look at. Anything else?”

    “Yeah, actually.” Jericho looked up at the burly detective sergeant. “Where exactly is my Designated Liaison?”

    “That would be me.” The voice, coming from farther down the hallway, sounded vaguely familiar. Jericho looked around to see a Hispanic woman in her early to mid-thirties approaching them, flanked by a pair of Enabled. She wore a police uniform with sergeant’s insignia and a severe expression. Flicking a glance at Stirling, she indicated Jericho with a tilt of her head as he climbed to his feet. “Finlay. You called for a Designated Liaison. This the guy?”

    The Enabled to Finlay’s right was one Jericho had never seen before. The man was of moderate height and more than average bulk, though a certain amount of that was probably due to the heavy bulletproof vest he was wearing, along with what looked like tactical SWAT gear. The only thing that really clued Jericho in that he was wearing a costume rather than a uniform was the large white ‘C’ with the number ‘2’ inside it, printed on the front of his vest. His helmet faceplate was tinted to hide his features, which was another indicator.

    On Finlay’s left, however, was someone with whom he was definitely familiar. Independence wore a form-fitting costume in muted reds and blues with SWAT-style goggles to conceal her identity; he’d already known that bit. Likewise, her waist-length platinum-blonde hair was pulled back and secured by a tie at the base of her neck. This close, however, he could tell her outfit was definitely bulkier than spandex, with strategic padding that shouted ‘body armor’ to him, as well as black straps crossing over her chest. These probably supported the harness that held her sword—he could see the hilt protruding from behind her left shoulder—and her assault rifle, the stock of which was visible over her right shoulder. A belt, also black, held pouches of varying size and shape, including some that almost certainly held spare magazines for the assault rifle.

    An unexpected reminder of her humanity and fallibility came in the form of a low-profile brace on her left knee, not unlike the one Nighthawk had been wearing on the train. From the irritated look on her face, she would much rather have been resting up with an icepack than attending this kind of do-nothing duty. He empathized, while hoping that she wouldn’t hold it against him.

    “This is the guy,” Stirling confirmed. “Need us to pull back out of the corridor?”

    Finlay shook her head. “Nah, we’re good.” Jericho frowned, wondering where he’d met her before, especially since her name also sounded familiar. The woman’s expression sharpened. “Hey, feller, you okay with me as your DL? Because I can just go if you’re not. No skin off mine.”

    “Well, I just want to get this over with so we can get on with catching the actual goddamn bad guy,” Jericho said candidly. “And to be honest, I’m just trying to figure out where I know your voice from.”

    “Huh. That is funny.” She tilted her head. “I could swear I’ve heard your voice somewhere too. But that doesn’t matter right now.” Her gaze shifted to Stirling and her frown deepened. “Seriously? You attended a serious assault call without a DL on hand?”

    “Hey, you guys don’t grow on trees,” Stirling said defensively. “Anyway, there was no word of an Enabled being involved.”

    “Any call to the Oaklands means there’s a good chance of an out-of-town Enabled being involved somehow,” she pointed out with an air of strained patience. Turning back to Jericho, she let out a sigh. “Sorry about the mix-up.” Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a folding wallet. When she flipped it open, Jericho saw a card embossed with the Great Seal of the United States, the image surrounded by the title DESIGNATED LIAISON. It included the woman’s picture, and informed Jericho that her name was Diane Finlay. Again, the name rang a bell but before he could follow up on it, she was talking again, in a tone of voice that suggested she was giving a memorized speech. “I’m a Designated Liaison to the UCPD, authorized for this position by the US government, the state government of Kansas and the Mayor’s office of Utopia City. My function is to evaluate the potential involvement of Enabled identities in crimes, without revealing those identities to the public at large. I am legally bound to maintain absolute confidentiality about any information I learn in the execution of my duties. If I were to betray this trust, I would suffer substantial legal penalties under the Challenger Act, including but not limited to incarceration in Federal prison.” She dropped the robotic act and kept talking as she put the wallet away. “Basically, my job is to find out who you are when you’re in costume and ascertain where you were when this crime was being committed. Once I’m satisfied you weren’t involved with this, I tell the guys and they drop you as a suspect so they can move on with the case.”

    Jericho nodded. “Yeah, I’ve already been told about that bit. Just not how it worked.”

    From her expression, this wasn’t the first time Finlay had explained this aspect as well. “That card I just showed you gives me the equivalent of a Top-Secret clearance. Trust me when I say that people will believe me when I say you’re in the clear. But hey, if you want to get arrested and processed and go through the whole nine yards, it’s your choice. Nobody’s forcing you to do this.”

    Jericho glanced at Stirling, as the closest thing he had seen to a friendly face so far. The detective sergeant gave him an encouraging nod. “She’s on the level, champ. This is the way we handle this sort of shit.”

    For what Jericho suspected would not be the last time, he wished Luke and Bobbi were still alive to advise him. Or just plain still alive. Despite the bone-deep pang it caused him, he put the thought aside for the moment. He had to see this through, and breaking down in front of all these cops would do nobody any good at all.

    “Yeah.” It was more a sigh than a word. “Let’s do this thing.”

    “Good.” All business once more, Finlay indicated the dead-end section of corridor that ended at the window. “That opens up?”

    Jericho nodded. “Yeah. There’s a reader.”

    “Good. Independence, could you please secure the perimeter?”

    Jericho stepped aside as Independence moved up to him. Despite the situation, he felt a tinge of awe at being in the presence of such a famous Enabled. Coming in just behind Castellan and just ahead of Tesseract Power, she was one of the prodigies everyone wanted to emulate. Her eyes raked down his body in a single scathing assessment and dismissed him in that same moment—not worth my time—before she passed him by. This neither surprised nor dismayed him; he had years to go before he could even hope to be as good as she was. So smoothly that he hadn’t even seen her palm the card, she tapped the reader and the window swiveled open for her. Stepping out onto the ladder, she tapped the outside reader and the window closed once more.

    Finlay turned her attention to Jericho and lowered her voice. “Your costume’s on site?”

    It wasn’t like he could exactly deny it. “Yeah, it’s in a zipper bag just inside the door. Black nylon.”

    She nodded. “Got it.” Raising her hand, she gestured at the waiting CSI guys. “There’s a black nylon bag with a shoulder-strap just inside the front door. I need it now.”

    The closest CSI guy glanced at Stirling, who gestured impatiently. “You heard the lady. Get it.”

    Jericho watched as the guy fetched the satchel and brought it over to Finlay. She took it, then turned to the second Enabled. “Okay, bubble us. Usual parameters.” Before he had a chance to wonder what that meant, a silver-gray field descended around the pair of them.

    Reaching out, Jericho pressed on the curved surface; it gave, but only a little. “Okay,” he said dubiously. “Um … I have to ask. Is it actually a good idea to put you into a force field bubble with a murder suspect?”

    She gave him a tolerant chuckle. “Yes, it actually is. This bubble’s permeable to me but not to you. I can walk out any time. Even if you attacked with overwhelming force and killed me before I had a chance to escape, Second Chance could wind back events in the bubble to before I got hurt, then freeze everything and pull me out. And then Independence would kick your ass into next week. But that’s not going to happen, is it?”

    Which explained why the guy was called ‘Second Chance’. “Well, no. I don’t have any plans to hurt you,” admitted Jericho immediately. “What are the ‘usual parameters’?”

    She tilted her head to acknowledge the question. “Nobody can hear either of us. I’m the only one they can see, and only in silhouette. Which means they can’t overhear us and they can’t lip-read through the bubble, but they can keep track of my well-being.”

    Jericho knew he had no way of verifying her words, but it seemed Designated Liaisons came with some pretty harsh penalties for playing fast and loose with information. On balance, he decided, she was probably telling the truth. “Okay. So where do we go from here?”

    Her voice was crisp. “Step one. Anything else in the apartment that might out you?”

    Jericho had to take a moment to think about this. “Just my phone. Call logs and stuff.”

    “Got it.” Finlay nodded firmly. “You have it on you right now?”

    The phone usually resided in a pouch on his utility belt, which was in the satchel she was holding. He pointed. “In there.”

    “Good. Step two. You need to tell me the sequence of events before you came on the scene, and anything you can tell me about your superhero identity.” Finlay looked at him expectantly.

    “Okay.” Jericho did his best to get his chaotic thoughts into order. It felt beyond bizarre to be telling a near-total stranger his deepest secret, so he held off on that until he had no choice. “I was patrolling over at the Market. Well, to be honest, I kind of interceded with a couple of undercover cops for getting rough with a kid. Tossed one of them in the canal. Then I—”

    “Wait.” The woman held up one hand. “G-Man? You’re G-Man?” The smile that spread across her face was as unexpected as it was welcome. “Hah. This is gonna be a slam-dunk.”

    Jericho’s brain skidded to a halt. “Wait, how did you know my name? I hadn’t even got that far yet.” Paranoia added itself to the swirl of thoughts in his head.

    She snorted with laughter, then shook her head. “We spoke on the phone. I was on switch room duty until they called me in on this. I knew your voice was familiar. You called and said you were going to be patrolling. Remember what I said just before we hung up?”

    Finlay. Holy crap. Now it was evident where he’d heard her voice. It was an effort to push back past all the events of the night to the phone conversation on top of the apartment building. He frowned, concentrating. “Wait … you said … good hunting?”

    A satisfied smile crossed her face. “Exactly. When I heard about you dumping Forrester in the canal, I laughed my ass off. So, we just need one more thing.”

    “What’s that?” he asked.

    “Power demonstration.” She turned her hands palm-up. “Just something small, to make sure that the G-Man I spoke to then is the G-Man I’m talking to now.”

    “Right.” He took a deep breath, then reduced his own effective weight to its minimum. Jumping lightly into the air, he tucked his knees into his chest and drifted through a slow-motion backflip before landing lightly on his feet once more. “Good enough?”

    “Definitely good enough. The ‘G’ stands for ‘gravity’, I take it?”

    She was clearly guessing; it was equally obvious that she’d never heard of him before. He successfully quashed the twinge of disappointment at his lack of fame. Right then, it wasn’t important. “That’s right. I can make myself or other things fall slower or faster.”

    She nodded. “Okay, that checks out.” Her expression was focused as she pulled out what he took to be a standard smartphone, right up until he saw the holographic interface dancing above the ‘screen’. “We’re already cutting the timing fine with your stunt at the Market, but if we can nail you down as being someplace else when the crime was under way, you’re home and dry. Now, where did you go from the Market?”

    He didn’t want to talk about Thomas; fortunately, the conversation he’d had with the young prodigy wasn’t part of this situation. “Went across the street and sat on top of a warehouse for a bit while I thought about exactly how I’d screwed up.” He paused, thinking about how to word the next bit. “Then I changed out of my costume and took an air-cab to the South Side Mall, to see what it was really about.”

    “Air-cab,” murmured Finlay, flicking holo-icons on the phone. “All right then … yes, found you. Air-cab to South Side. And then, twenty minutes later, you take one back to near the same location. No record of using your ’Card to purchase anything at the Mall itself. What were you doing in that time?”

    “Playing in the gravity shaft,” Jericho said with a blush, recalling the thoughts he’d had about Thomas at the time. “I can only glide on my own, but I’d give anything to be able to fly.”

    With a tolerant smile, Finlay shook her head and rolled her eyes. “Most of us can’t even glide. So, the air-cab let you out a few blocks away from the Oaklands, just about the time the filters picked up the smell of fresh blood in your apartment and we got the alert. What did you do then?”

    “I went back, rooftop-running.” He snapped his fingers. “A hex went overhead just as I started my glide back to the Oaklands, if that helps.”

    “It does. Even when hexes are running patrol patterns, they’re recording everything they see.” She manipulated the interface for a few moments, then nodded. “Got it.”

    Leaning forward, he stared at the unfolding image. He’d seen the holographic screen on the kiosk in the maglev station but on something the size of a phone, it was even more impressive. It showed the top of the building he’d climbed onto after gliding across the street. A tiny person, arms outstretched, leaped outward and began to glide out of frame. Finlay did something to pause the action, then expanded the image until only the gliding figure was in the field of view. It was very clearly him, the wing-surfaces outstretched and the white ‘G’ showing up vividly against the black of his jacket. This was the first time he’d seen a picture of himself gliding from that angle; or from any angle, really.

    “This is you?” she asked, as if there were many others in the city for whom gliding was a natural act. “And what’s that cloth under your arms? Is that what you use to glide with?”

    He was impressed; most people took a little longer to come to that conclusion. “That’s me and yeah, the extra surface area and the slower falling rate is what lets me pull that off.” He didn’t bother going into how much trial and error had gone into making the gliding surfaces work.

    “So, if I opened this bag, I’d find elements of the costume you’re wearing in this image?” she pressed.

    “Yeah.” Now Jericho knew what she was pushing toward. “My jacket, mask, gloves and utility belt.”

    “Noted.” Tucking the satchel under her arm, she undid the zipper and reached inside. The first thing she pulled out was the sleeve of the jacket, which she kept on tugging at until half the garment was out of the bag. “Emblem checks out,” she murmured, half to herself. “Gliding surfaces, too.” She turned toward him as she squeezed part of the jacket between thumb and forefinger. “What’s this stuff I can feel inside it?”

    “Plastic plates to stop knives,” he said, suddenly shy about the fact that he was showing off makeshift body armor to someone who probably made a practice of wearing the real thing.

    “I see.” Her voice was devoid of judgement, for which he was grateful. Stuffing the jacket back into the satchel, she zipped it up and handed it back to him. Turning her attention back to her phone, she began to page through settings on the holographic file. “Okay, given these timestamps, you were all the way over at South Side when it was going down. You’re cleared.” She put away her phone and offered her hand. “Sorry for your loss.”

    “Thanks.” He shook it with a grimace at the reminder. “What happens now?”

    Raising her other hand, she snapped the fingers twice. The bubble faded away, leaving Second Chance and the others watching them expectantly. “He’s in the clear,” she stated firmly. “Carry on.” Her expression was sympathetic as she put a hand on Jericho’s shoulder. “I know it all sucks right now, but Utopia’s got the best CSI department on the planet. They’ll catch the bastard who did this and bring him down.”

    “Thanks,” he said again, knowing how inadequate it was. In about one minute, she’d sliced through what would’ve been an insuperable obstacle of red tape anywhere else. For her, it was all in a night’s work.

    “You’re welcome,” she said lightly. “And when they find out who he is, I hope you get to hunt him down and kick his ass.” As she turned away, he heard the window behind him open and close again. A moment later, Independence brushed past him once more.

    He watched as Finlay, flanked by the two heroes, headed off down the corridor. Then he turned to Stirling. “Okay,” he said. “What do I do now?”

    “Nothing,” the detective sergeant said bluntly. “Sorry, champ, but all we can do now is stay out of the way while the experts do their job.” A moment later, he blinked as something seemed to occur to him. “Well, unless you happen to know a superhero with, uh, special senses or something?” He paused, eyeing Jericho significantly.

    A moment later, Jericho got the hint. He’s asking me if my Enabled identity can do anything to help. “No, I don’t know anyone like that,” he admitted. He could read a basic crime scene reasonably well, but only up to the level of a talented amateur. Next to trained experts equipped with Utopia City’s level of technology, he’d be so far behind the curve it wouldn’t even be funny. Besides, as much as he wanted to help, he wasn’t sure how long he could maintain his current act. Sooner or later, things were going to break free and he was going to crash, hard. Once that happened, he’d be worse than useless.

    “Copy that,” Stirling replied. “We’ve contacted the Oaklands management, and they’ve offered you use of another apartment on this floor, free of charge. Number one-two-one-two. You okay with that, or would you rather come back to the precinct and spend the night there?”

    No matter what happened, he was going to have a bad night of it. He knew that for a fact. And while he knew the police would be sympathetic, he really wanted to be alone for this. “I’ll stay in the Oaklands, thanks.”

    “Whatever suits you.” Stirling handed him something. “You’re gonna need this.” It was his MagCard. He didn’t even remember dropping it.

    “Thanks, I … what the hell?” His upcoming ordeal temporarily forgotten, he stared at the pair of mechanical apparitions which had just rounded the corner and were proceeding along the corridor toward himself and Stirling. About four feet high and seven feet long, each of them moved with a mincing gait on four efficient-looking legs, emitting only the faintest of humming noises. While the legs were black and metallic, each curved upper body had a white carapace with a red cross displayed prominently in the middle. They moved with a subtly inhuman grace.

    “Those are Rovers,” Stirling explained quietly. “The medics use them all the time. Semi-autonomous gurneys. Gyro-stabilized and able to cover just about any terrain you can find. They can both monitor the patient and administer treatment on the move. It’s a licensed variation of an experimental military robot that they’ve been working on out East for a few years.” Hometown pride was evident in his voice as he added, “But our version’s smarter and faster and a lot more versatile.”

    Jericho shook his head, which was starting to develop an ache between the eyebrows. He watched as each Rover, placing its round-ball ‘feet’ with the precision of a dancer, entered the apartment, and a lump arose in his throat. He knew what they were there for, and he didn’t want to think about it.

    Stirling, watching him keenly, slapped him on the shoulder. “Listen, you’re d— uh, you look like shit. Go get your head down. We’ll talk in the morning.”

    “Right.” Jericho let out his breath in a sigh. He could already feel the stinging behind his eyelids which told him tears were not all that far away. This time, he wouldn’t be able to hold them back. “Which way’s the apartment I’m staying in?”

    “I have no goddamn idea,” Stirling admitted. He held up a hand and gestured to one of the other officers. “Clancy, walk this guy up around the corner, will you? There’s a room service cart that can take him the rest of the way. Apartment one-two-one-two.”

    “Sure thing, detective sergeant.” The officer called Clancy nodded to Jericho. “Come on, sir.”

    “Thanks,” said Jericho. He moved past Stirling, then stopped and turned. “And thanks for …” Words failed him. “… everything.”

    Stirling nodded; his expression sympathetic. “You go get some sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”

    Oh, crap. Jericho suddenly recalled that in the morning, he was due to go and attend his interview with Force Majeure. He had no idea how he was going to manage that, or if he was going to be able to manage it.

    I’m a prodigy. We do the impossible on a regular basis. If he could just convince himself he was capable of it, he could do it. Besides, Luke would want me to follow through. He didn’t make me get on the maglev just so I could wimp out now.

    He followed Clancy down the corridor and around the corner, clutching his MagCard and costume satchel like talismans. His feet wanted to stumble, both from fatigue and reaction to what had happened, but he didn’t let them. Sure enough, one of the room service carts had parked itself on the linoleum strip. The numbers one and three were painted on the front of the cart.

    “Room service one-three,” Clancy said out loud. Jericho couldn’t have spoken, even if he wanted to. The painful lump in his throat was back. Tears welled in his eyes and he blinked them away.

    “Greetings. I am Room Service one-three. May I help you?” The voice held the same synthesized feminine tone as the other room service robot had.

    “Yes. This man needs to go to apartment one-two-one-two.” Clancy spoke in a matter-of-fact tone.

    “You wish to be guided to apartment one-two-one-two. Is that your requirement?”

    “Yes.” As Clancy spoke, more tears were flooding Jericho’s vision to the point that he was having trouble even reading room numbers now.

    “Understood. Apartment one-two-one-two is in this direction. Please follow me.” The cart didn’t bother turning around; it merely motored off along the strip of linoleum as if ‘front’ and ‘back’ were interchangeable concepts for it. At Clancy’s encouraging nod, Jericho followed along, concentrating on putting one foot before the other.

    The little room service cart rolled down one corridor after another, weaving its way through the building without pause. Eventually, it slowed to a halt. The mechanical arm unstowed itself from the side of the cart and pointed toward a particular door. “That is apartment one-two-one-two. Do you require further assistance?”

    Jericho didn’t answer; he couldn’t. Moving past the cart, he swiped the MagCard blindly across the reader and lurched in through the door as it swung open. The immediate impression he got of the apartment was that it was smaller than the one he’d been in before, with a different canvas print on the wall. But he wasn’t worried about that. Dropping the satchel and MagCard on the floor, he began pulling his clothes off as he headed for the bathroom.

    “Your clothing has suffered contamination from potentially infectious biological material. Would you like me to clean it for you?”

    “Whatever,” he choked out. Right then, he was at the end of his rope.

    The bathroom door opened before him, and he more or less fell into the shower cubicle. An unaimed shove at the shower control lever brought the water pouring down on top of him, just hot enough to be painful. Uncaring, he slumped to the floor of the cubicle, knees drawn up to his chest. As the shower pounded on his head and back, his own floodgates opened. The stark, sterile white tiles echoed back his racking sobs as he gave way at last to the bone-deep grief that had been tearing at him ever since he realized that his best friend, his closest friend, was dead.

    “Luuuuuke!” he howled in anguish, hot tears running down his face and mingling with the water from the shower. “LUUUUUUUKE!

    No answer came. Alone in a city of over a million people, he screamed his pain and loss until his voice cracked and his throat ached.

    Utterly bereft, Jericho Hansen grieved.
     
    Mr. Tebbs, kabs and Twilight666 like this.
  25. kabs

    kabs Well thought out cheerful stories turn me on

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    Wow, that was a fantastic chapter. The first one I've read, but I'm excited for more!
     
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  26. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    You do know there's 30 before it, and 4 prologues before that, right?

    Also, thanks :D
     
    Last edited: Aug 23, 2020
  27. kabs

    kabs Well thought out cheerful stories turn me on

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    Yup, I like to jump into the middle of books to see if they're good, because a lot of them have slow/boring starts. Also, you're welcome! You're a good writer!
     
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  28. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I tried not to make the beginning too slow or boring.
     
  29. Threadmarks: Chapter Thirty-Two: Coming to Grips
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Coming to Grips

    Jericho stood atop the Spire, impossibly high in the sky. The Oaklands was far below him. He was master of all he surveyed. Utopia City spread out before him in all its glory. He could reach out, look into any of the homes, ensure that everyone was safe. He was a hero. It was what he did. He kept everyone safe.

    “Cuz!” It was Luke’s voice, coming from the Oaklands. “Cuz! Help!”

    That was odd. Luke had never needed help before, for as long as Jericho had known him. He looked, focusing his vision, and saw that Luke was under attack by a shadowy form. The man held a knife of living flame that darted and slashed at Luke even as his cousin shielded Bobbi from the attacker. Already, blood flowed from Luke’s wounds. There was so much blood.

    “I’m coming, Luke! I’m coming!” Jericho leaped from his elevated perch, spread his arms, and prepared to plummet to the rescue. But something was wrong with his powers. He couldn’t speed himself up. Luke came no closer. Jericho found himself forced to land on the side of the Spire. He spread his arms again, leaped off, and dived to the rescue.

    “Help!” called Bobbi. “Save us! I’m not a superhero yet, so you have to save us!” The shadow man darted past Luke and slashed at her, and Jericho screamed as he saw blood flowing from her gouged-out eyes.

    The air was like tar. He strained to reach them faster, but even putting his arms to his sides only increased his speed by a tiny amount. “Luke, I’m coming! Hold on!” he called out desperately, as if saying so made it more likely to happen.

    And then he was standing in the same room, watching helplessly as Luke took the knife-blow to the throat. Blood sprayed out, coating the room, coating Jericho, coating everything and everyone except the shadowy man. The man whose face Jericho couldn’t see. The man who laughed as Luke fell to the floor so slowly, blood still spraying from his throat like a fire hose.

    “I’ll kill you!” screamed Jericho, leaping toward the man with his fist drawn back to punch. But no matter how he flailed and swung and kicked, the man ducked and dodged every blow. And every time he dodged, he slashed at Bobbi. More slashes hit her, cutting up her face.

    “You’re supposed to save us,” she said calmly through her ruined mouth, even as the killer plunged the grotesquely long knife into her heart. “You weren’t supposed to run off and leave us alone.” She fell backward into the closet that had always been behind her, and Jericho leaped at the killer once more with a bellow of rage. The man dissipated like a shadow made of spider-webs, leaving behind just an echo of mocking laughter.

    “It’s your fault!” shouted the bearded police detective from the Market, waving a pistol in his face. “You’re no hero!”

    All the shoppers from the Market turned and sang in chorus, “You’re no hero! You’re no hero!” Even the cop he’d thrown into the canal, floating face-down and drowning, blew bubbles in time with the words.

    “I
    am a hero!” shouted Jericho desperately. “I save people!”

    “Didn’t save your buddy, champ.” Detective Sergeant Stirling entered the room riding a Rover like a horse, chasing a room service cart that was mopping up all the evidence. “You got here too late and got arrested for the murder.” He clamped thick, shiny handcuffs on Jericho’s wrists, then galloped off in pursuit of the room service cart as it took the corner on two wheels.

    “Cuz.” It was Luke’s voice. Jericho dropped to his knees beside Luke. He tried to pick his cousin up, but the pieces of wood Luke was holding were too big and got in the way.

    “Luke,” sobbed Jericho. “Don’t die. Stay with me. Don’t go away.” He got his arms around his cousin and started to drag him. He was in Utopia City, and they had the best hospitals anywhere. He could save Luke’s life if he could only get him to a hospital.

    “They don’t know how to save him.” It was Sergeant Finlay, trapped in a silver-gray bubble like a snow globe ornament. “I’m a Designated Liaison and I’m the only one who knows how.”

    “Then tell me!” begged Jericho. “Tell me how to save him!”

    “That’s easy,” she said. “All you have to do is—”

    Independence drew her sword and popped the bubble. It vanished, leaving nothing behind.

    “Tell me!” pleaded Jericho of the veteran superhero. “Tell me what I have to do!”

    She looked him in the eye and shook her head then turned and hobbled off, an arrow sticking out of her knee.

    “Cuz.” It was Luke’s voice again. He grasped Jericho’s hand. “Cuz. Why’d ya do it?”

    “Why did I do what?” asked Jericho. He looked down as Luke’s last breath rattled in his throat, meeting his cousin’s one good eye, and discovered that his hand was wrapped around the hilt of the knife that was sunk deep into Luke’s chest.


    “No!” he shouted, opening his eyes and sitting bolt upright on what turned out to be a sofa. A blanket slid off his chest into his lap. Silence greeted his outburst, and darkness filled the apartment.

    Slowly, he forced his breathing to ease off, as he could feel the light-headedness of hyperventilation coming on. His heart hammered in his chest, and he was drenched with sweat. There was a dull ache in his forehead that he recognized as a sign of dehydration, aided and abetted by a monumental case of dry mouth.

    “Son of a bitch,” he mumbled. He could only remember snatches of the nightmare even now, but it took a lot to raise his heart rate this much. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Luke’s face with his single staring eye and for the life of him, he could not figure out if it was a real memory or a remnant of the dream.

    Whichever one it was, it brought home the brutal truth to him. Luke was dead. Nothing was ever going to change that. Luke had accompanied Jericho to Utopia City, and now he was dead. While his death could not be totally laid at Jericho’s feet—nobody had ever been able to tell Luke what to do, or what not to do—Jericho felt responsible enough that it made him sick to his stomach. If I hadn’t come to Utopia City, if we hadn’t come here, he’d still be alive. How the hell am I supposed to live with that?

    He put his feet on the floor, more of the blanket sliding off and making him aware that he wasn’t wearing anything under it. Who put this over me? In the state he’d been in, he could see himself making it to the sofa, but there was no way he would’ve had the presence of mind to find the blanket and cover himself with it. If he’d been that together, he would’ve woken up on the bed.

    Stumbling to his feet, he wrapped the blanket around himself. The last thing he wanted to do was find out that a cop had been assigned to watch over him by giving them a full-frontal flash. There was just enough illumination coming in through the window to let him find his way to the kitchen nook, alongside the closed bedroom door. His questing hand found what his eyes had missed, brushing across a light switch. A sharp click sounded, and light flooded through the small apartment. The glare-blindness only lasted for a moment before his eyes adjusted.

    As in the previous apartment, there were glasses in the cupboard under the counter. Awkwardly holding the blanket around himself, he took one out and filled it at the sink. The first glass took care of the dryness in his mouth, and the next three took the edge off the dehydration headache. The fourth was half-empty when he tipped it out and placed the glass in the sink. Leaning back against the counter, he looked around at the apartment, taking stock of his surroundings for the first time.

    As he’d seen when he came in, the living room was smaller than the one in the other apartment. Instead of the Spire at night, the canvas print portrayed a wider view of Utopia City at either sunrise or sunset; he was insufficiently familiar with the city to determine which. Aside from the sofa (which wasn’t a fold-out model) there was the kitchen nook, the bedroom (which he had yet to see inside) and the bathroom (with which he was altogether too familiar). A flat-screen TV of identical make to the one in the last apartment took up a good chunk of the wall opposite the sofa. This, then, was his living situation until something better could be arranged.

    He opened the bedroom door to find it unoccupied. There was one queen-sized bed, made up neatly, with his costume satchel sitting beside a small pile of folded clothing, on the end of the bed. At the foot of the bed rested his boots. He ignored the phone, the MagCard and the TV remote on the bedside table in favor of more important matters. On closer examination, the clothing on the bed was either what he’d been wearing before, or a set of unreasonably precise duplicates. Presuming it was his original clothing, at some point it had been laundered and dried, and he knew he hadn’t done that. Likewise, his boots had been meticulously cleaned and polished.

    Holding the blanket around him, he stuck the pile of clothing together with a couple of glue-tags so he could pick it all up in one piece. Then he headed for the bathroom. As he’d guessed, there was a clean, dry towel hanging on the rail, where he almost certainly hadn’t left it. Dropping his clothes onto the lid of the washer-dryer, he tossed the blanket out into the living room and stepped into the shower. He retained enough fragments of the nightmare that he had no intention of going back to sleep, but at least he could shower away the outward evidence.

    As the hot water cascaded down his body, he mused over the fact that his clothing had been laundered and his boots cleaned. Then there was the fact that the towel had been hung up (or washed and then hung up) and the blanket spread over him as he slept. Either someone (probably a cop, given that the Oaklands didn’t seem to have any human cleaning staff) had tended to his needs … or the room service robot had done it all, without him telling it to.

    By the time he got out of the shower, he was leaning toward the latter theory, but he wasn’t quite sure how he felt about it. On the one hand, he’d undoubtedly needed the assistance. On the other … asking permission would’ve been nice. Unless saying ‘whatever’ gave it enough wiggle room to do all this? I think I’m gonna need to be careful what I say around them.

    After drying himself off, he got dressed, trying to ignore his reflection in the mirror. The few glances that he did catch proved that he looked more haggard than he had in years. But with all that, putting his clothing on was a transformative act. Naked, even with a blanket for cover, he’d felt vulnerable and exposed.

    Clothed and ready for action, he headed back to the bedroom. A check of the satchel confirmed that the contents were all present and correct. Taking the MagCard, he tucked it into his pocket. The phone he kept in his hand as he walked out into the living room.

    The TV had a remote sitting next to it; Jericho took this and settled back on the sofa, then dragged a cushion on to his lap and wrapped his arms around it. With that little bit of extra comfort dealt with, he began looking for an early morning news channel. With luck, the cops would’ve caught the asshat, and he’d be able to ask some questions and get closure for himself and Luke’s family. With better luck, they’d have leads that he could follow and catch the guy first. Not that he had much in the way of hope for that scenario.

    Of news channels there were many, but most of those were broadcasts from other cities or even other states. He cycled between the two local channels, UC/24 and the unimaginatively named Utopia News, and found … nothing. No breathless reporting from the scene with red and blue lights flashing in the background, no armchair detective work into the identity or motives of the killer. On the one hand, he was pleased that there would be no microphones thrust into his face while a reporter yammered questions about how he felt regarding the death of his best friend. On the other … he scrubbed his hands over his face, trying to put words to his emotions. It just didn’t feel right that Luke and Bobbi’s passing had garnered such little attention. Not that he wanted a media circus, but there had to be a compromise between ‘no attention’ and ‘all the attention’.

    He flicked back and forth between the two channels a few times, then found a menu button. Scrolling through the list of channels, he paused as he reached one simply called Police Alerts. When he pressed the Enter button, he found an interactive list of peoples’ names. The one at the top showed an update time of only a couple of hours.

    Jack Portman, he read. There was a face-on image of a guy with brutal good looks, and a few seconds of looped footage exhibiting a clarity and sharpness of detail surpassing every security camera he’d ever seen before. In the footage, the same man as in the picture hobbled into frame with his hands jammed into his pockets. When his face came into view, he seemed to notice the camera for the first time, and brought his right hand out of his pocket, far too late to conceal the vivid scratches down one side of his face where Bobbi had gotten him with her fingernails. A splash of crusted brown showed up dramatically on his knuckles as he rubbed at his forehead, the move clearly an excuse for concealing his identity. Then he limped jerkily onward, definitely favoring his left leg. With a sense of shock, Jericho recognized the background as the courtyard of the Oaklands. Okay, that settles it. This is the guy. I bet I know exactly how he got that limp. And he didn’t get it out and about, kicking ass and taking names.

    He studied the man’s features intently, then scrolled down to find what the cops were saying about him. Wanted for questioning about a double homicide. Do not approach. Inform police or Force Majeure if seen. Last seen at … Jericho didn’t know the location, but there was a low-detail map that showed it to be on the southern side of the city.

    There were only a few ways to interpret that. This ‘Jack Portman’ guy had left the Oaklands just before Jericho had gotten back. On the security footage, he’d shown signs of having been in a fight, including fingernail gouges on his face and blood on his knuckles. The cops evidently hadn’t caught up with him yet, but it looked like they’d tracked the car to some place near where the Southsiders held sway. But what was the connection? Was Portman a hitman? Someone who resented Luke’s presence in the city? The timing didn’t make sense. They’d barely been in the city six hours, and Luke hadn’t even had the chance to get out and annoy anyone. And what sort of assassin went in after two people with a knife? Admittedly, he’d won, but a stupid winning move was still a stupid move. It left far too much leeway for the other target to call for help, to run for help, to join in the fight … anything, really. The fact that it hadn’t happened didn’t mean it couldn’t happen. Any hired killer worth his salt would know this.

    He grimaced, recognizing that he was avoiding thinking of one other possibility. Is this Portman guy Enabled? While this would go a long way toward clarifying how he’d succeeded in killing them both, it didn’t help with the why at all. In fact, unless the criminal activities Luke had been involved in were a magnitude or two more profitable than Jericho was aware of, there was no way paying for an Enabled hitman would be worth the price.

    Or did one of Adam Power’s enemies somehow find out what Bobbi was planning to do, and take steps?

    Which brought the questions around full circle. Who was Jack Portman? Was he Enabled, or a normal who just got lucky? What was Luke to him? Or Bobbi? Why did they let him in, or did they let him in?

    And, most importantly: Where can I find that sonovabitch?
     
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  30. Threadmarks: Chapter Thirty-Three: The Ugly Truth
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    The Ugly Truth

    He was still sitting on the sofa, the cushion on his lap and the few seconds of footage rolling over and over on the TV in front of him, when there came a knock on the door. With a blink and a start, he looked around. He’d been brooding, out of costume, in the living room of the apartment. This indicated just how screwed-up the situation was, and how desperately he needed to resolve what had happened. Which hadn’t happened, of course. He was lacking in both information and the opportunity to get more.

    The knock came again, and he tossed the cushion to one side and jumped to his feet. Just for a moment, he imagined it was the killer and he clenched his fists. He’d smear the guy into the ground and break every bone in his body if it was. “Who is it?”

    “Stirling,” called a familiar voice. “Can I come in?”

    “Just a second.” Forming a glue-tag in his hand, he approached the door. There was a sturdy-looking security chain on the frame, and he slid it into place. He hadn’t noticed if there’d been one in 1204, but he was willing to assume it was there. Which made it even harder to puzzle out. If someone unknown to both Bobbi and Luke had knocked on the door, why hadn’t they taken this most basic of precautions?

    Keeping the hand with the ’tag out of sight, he opened the door. Stirling stood outside the apartment; as far as Jericho could tell, there was nobody with him. The door hit the limit of travel of the chain, so Jericho closed it slightly and took the chain off again. Without dissolving the ’tag, he opened the door.

    “Getting a bit paranoid there, champ?” Stirling strode into the apartment as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

    Jericho closed the door, and finally allowed himself to relax far enough to dismiss the glue-tag. “I’ve been worrying at the problem for hours and I can’t see how or why this even happened. For all I know, the guy was after me, not Luke or Bobbi. But I’ve never seen him before in my life. And how did he get inside? Was he Enabled? Have we got another Darksider on the loose?”

    Stirling shuddered. “Don’t even joke about that shit.”

    Most of the terror villains of the nineties had been dynamics, with a few artificers. Mutilator, Guillotine and the Darksider had been the only potential prodigies among them, each with a very impressive kill count to their name. The difference was that Mutilator had Devastator for backup, while Guillotine would’ve needed either an Artificer-created weapon or a Dynamic ability to produce the molecule-fine cuts that had removed heads and arms with such ease (not to mention the billowing clouds of fog that made it so much harder to target her in combat). The Darksider, with neither resource to fall back on, had been terrifying enough in his own right. No lock could hold him out, no amount of security could prevent his entry. And once he made it inside … he’d secured the exits so nobody could get out, then gone hunting. There had rarely been survivors.

    “We know who, we know how, and we know why.” Stirling put the discarded cushion back into place and settled onto the sofa, then looked at the TV. “Ah. You got the ‘who’ as well. Good.”

    “Yeah, but I don’t know who this guy is,” Jericho pointed out, trying not to take his frustration out on Stirling. “What’s his game? Why Luke?”

    “Before we get into that, how are you feeling?” asked Stirling bluntly. “Because you still look like ten miles of bad road. You’re gonna need to sleep sometime, you know.”

    “Tried it.” Jericho shook his head. “It’s worse than staying awake. I can handle it, though. Done it before.”

    “Hmm.” Stirling looked unconvinced, but he moved on all the same. “Okay, there’s some stuff I’m gonna be filling you in on, but you need to be discreet about it and you definitely don’t tell anyone where you got it from.” He glanced around the room almost theatrically. “Normally I wouldn’t even be doing this, but you look like a stand-up guy to me and … well, special circumstances and all that shit.” Which was a roundabout way of saying he knew Jericho was a superhero, even if neither one of them was going to admit it.

    Jericho nodded. “Understood. Anything you can tell me, I’ll totally appreciate.” Holy crap, Stirling’s actually going to Gordon me on this one? He hadn’t expected anything like this to happen, but he was definitely going to take it.

    “Oh, this is nothing special,” Stirling said. He was lying through his teeth, and they both knew it. “I’m just carrying out a welfare check on a private citizen. Aren’t I?” He stared long and hard at Jericho to make his point, then took a deep breath. Despite his outward bravado, he still apparently had to brace himself to break the rules even this little bit. “So.”

    “So,” echoed Jericho, encouragingly.

    “So, a guy called Jack Portman came in on the maglev from Indianapolis last night.” Stirling’s casual tone was almost convincing.

    With that simple statement, much fell into place. “Bobbi,” Jericho said, enlightenment almost blinding him. “He’s Bobbi’s boyfriend. She said he might be coming in. I didn’t make the connection ’til just now.” Jack was a pretty common name, after all.

    Stirling nodded, more firmly in the groove now. “We had information that they were a couple, but it’s always good to get corroboration. When he got into town, he took an air taxi to the south side of town and dropped out of sight for a few hours. After that, we’ve got him taking another cab to the Oaklands, where he walked into reception and asked which room Ms. Reynolds was in. Then he took the elevator up, went to the apartment, and knocked on the door. When they let him in, he attacked them.”

    “But why?” asked Jericho. “I get it that there was tension between him and Bobbi, but I still don’t see the motive.”

    “Two things,” Stirling said. “I presume your cousin was going to be sleeping on the foldout sofa bed?”

    Jericho nodded. “Yeah, he was. Why?”

    Stirling didn’t answer the question directly. “Second thing. Portman was on meth when he came into the apartment. The lab reported traces of it in the blood samples we took off … uh, in the blood samples they found in the apartment.”

    The evasion didn’t escape Jericho’s notice, but he chose not to comment. “Meth? Oh, crap.” As G-Man, he’d had to subdue a meth-head once. The guy just wouldn’t go down. He’d also been attacking a lamppost that had apparently said unkind things about his mother.

    “Filthy stuff.” Stirling grimaced. “The working theory is that he showed up and they let him in. He saw the sofa, didn’t know it was a bed, and maybe jumped to the conclusion that Ms. Reynolds was sleeping with your cousin. If he was high, it wouldn’t have been a big jump.”

    “Crap. Luke was probably still watching TV when he got there.” It was another piece to the puzzle. Unfortunately, it fit all too well. “When she was on the phone with this Jack guy, she said she was sharing with two guys. So, you’re right. He comes in, the sofa’s not a bed, and Luke’s right there.”

    Meth didn’t, as far as Jericho knew, make the user super-strong or impervious to pain. But it could easily cause users to react in a delusional fashion, and it did go a long way toward making them very difficult to put down. If they were armed, things got bloody, very fast. Luke had clearly gotten a hit or two in—the limp proved that—but the guy had just kept attacking. And he’d had a knife, which would’ve made it much harder for Luke to defend himself. Bobbi’s power would’ve been worse than useless in this situation; from what she’d told Jericho, the rage radiating off her boyfriend would’ve almost paralyzed her.

    Recalling the footage, he glanced at the TV, then his eyes narrowed. “He was on meth, all right,” he said. “Look, right there. He’s tweaking.” He gestured at the screen, focusing on the way Portman’s hand jittered back and forth in the fakest-looking attempt at rubbing his forehead he’d ever seen. The jerky way Portman hobbled offscreen also took on a whole new meaning. Compulsive, twitchy movements were a hallmark of the drug and its aftermath.

    “Wondered if you’d catch that.” Stirling showed his teeth briefly before the expression dropped away again. “We haven’t caught up with the asshole yet. Him and the guy who was driving abandoned the car in a parking garage where all the security cameras had been mysteriously vandalized.” As if his meaning wasn’t already clear, he rolled his eyes as he said the word ‘mysteriously’. “He’s gone back down the rabbit hole for the time being. But we’ve shut down every avenue out of the city we can. We know he didn’t take the maglev, and he can’t use his MagCard now without raising a flag.”

    Jericho recalled Thomas’ impromptu lesson on how MagCards operated. “And he can’t steal someone else’s identity to go on the maglev, because MagCards don’t work that way.”

    Stirling gave him a measured nod. “Correct, though most people don’t know that. We don’t advertise it, because it’s amazing how many people try that trick and wonder why they get caught anyway. But it looks like he’s wise to it, ’cause it hasn’t happened yet. The only other real way out of the city’s the interstate, but we’ve shut down the off-ramp for the time being so he can’t just hitch a ride.”

    “That’s gonna piss off the Southsiders.” Jericho grimaced internally when Stirling gave him a sharp glance. Probably wondering where I heard about them. The comment had just slipped out, but he couldn’t exactly take it back. Besides, considering that the maglev didn’t allow passengers to carry illegal drugs, the Southsiders had probably been the ones to supply Portman with the meth in the first place. He could muster very little in the way of sympathy for them.

    “If you're referring to the employees of South Side Parking, they’ll be adequately reimbursed by the city for the loss of business.” From his tone of voice, Stirling knew Jericho didn't mean the business.

    “Yeah, that too,” agreed Jericho, deadpan.

    Stirling snorted with amusement, then heaved himself to his feet. “Well, that’s all I had to say. It’s time I was going. We’ll be in touch about releasing the body, probably sometime this afternoon. His parents have been contacted, and his father said he’d come in to help identify the body.”

    They need two people for that, Jericho realized. Uncle Leroy’s gonna need me there as well. He didn’t want to do it, but this was a situation where there was no comfortable way out. Luke had backed him up all his life; this was the absolute least he could do in return. “I understand,” he said awkwardly. “I’ll be there too.”

    Stirling offered his hand to shake. “Good talk. And, uh …” He glanced sideways at the TV. “… if you happen to be out and about, and you run across this joker, call me before you do anything rash, huh?” The unspoken message was clear: At least give us a chance to arrest the guy before you do something drastic to him. He pulled a card out of his pocket and offered it to Jericho.

    Jericho took it, then shook his hand firmly. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m just a private citizen.” Sensing that Stirling wanted a little more, he added, “But on the off-chance I do happen to find him, I’ll definitely try not to do anything that you wouldn’t do.” No promises.

    “Good.” Stirling looked as though he might have been repenting of his decision to share so much information with Jericho, then he shrugged ever so slightly. “You didn’t hear any of this from me, okay?”

    Stirling had offered Jericho his trust in this matter; given Jericho’s views on loyalty, there was only one answer he could give. Meeting Stirling’s eyes, he spread his hands in a parody of innocence. “Hear what?”

    Some of the tension went out of the detective sergeant’s shoulders. “No idea what you’re talking about, champ.” He headed for the door, then stopped. “Oh, yeah. Nearly forgot. Once they’ve cleared your stuff and your cousin’s personal effects, you’ll be able to pick them up from the precinct house.”

    “Yeah, that’d be good.” The last thing he wanted was for Luke’s possessions to languish in police storage a moment longer than necessary.

    Stirling nodded. “I’ll let the guys know.” He tapped his lower lip with his finger. “I don’t know exactly when your uncle will be getting in, so I’d really try to get some sleep if I was you.” A little humor crept into his tone. “Because seriously, you do look like shit.”

    “Yeah.” Jericho was fully aware of that, but he wasn’t exactly looking forward to trying to sleep again. It would happen eventually. He didn’t have to like it.

    “Good.” Apparently taking his agreement for acceptance, Stirling opened the door and stepped through. “See you around. Take care of yourself.”

    As the door closed behind the detective sergeant, Jericho slowly sat down on the sofa, barely aware that he was doing so. Stirling’s visit had turned his entire view of the situation upside down. The nebulous castle of speculation he’d constructed regarding a criminal conspiracy employing Enabled assassins against either Luke or Bobbi had collapsed and evaporated like the morning dew. Luke wasn’t being targeted. I wasn’t even being targeted. There was no grand plan. It was all about one stupid goddamn meth-head asshole with a knife, and Luke was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had trouble believing that such a horrific event could come to pass from such a mundane confluence of events, but there it was. The facts were in, and he had to accept them.

    There just remained two burning questions.

    Where is Jack Portman, and how soon can I get my hands on him?
     
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