Food Break

“Kids behave for you?” Darren asks, leaning against the doorframe.

I say something that sounds a lot like ‘eeeeeeuuuuuuugh’.

He laughs. The prick.

“Forms,” I say.

“Forms?” he repeats.

I drop my head onto my desk.

Shaking his, he walks over to it, rearranging my papers and tucking them back into files. “I was about to head out, unless you wanted to get dinner first.”

This time I say ‘urf’.

“Yeah, Fox, I think it’s time for dinner,” he tells me, patting my arm.

I poke at his hand repeatedly. Eventually it comes off my shoulder. Then something deeply confusing happens and I end up in the cafeteria. I think I’ve been lured here by tactical deployment of cats. Damn Darren’s phone. And his head for strategy. And his funny cat-ptions.

At least there’s coffee in the mess.

Darren drops a tray in front of me. And food. There is also food here. Okay. Yes. Dinner break. Reluctantly, I put away the cats.

I’m about halfway through what appears to be a lasagna by the time I manage to pause, take a breath, and thank Darren for bringing me food. He’s eating at a much more sedate pace and trying his very hardest not to grin at me.

“Getting kitted out for a jetpack,” I mumble at him through a mouthful of cheese and noodles.

“Ooh, fun times,” he says, “is it going to be specially detailed in your colors? Are you getting a logo? Are they going to write your name on the back?”

I harrumph at him. “I don’t think they even come in colors.”

“Yeah, yeah, sleek chrome of the future and all,” Darren says. “I want it to be purple. Violently purple. Violetly purple. Teleki- damn, there’s got to be a pun here somewhere.”

“Te-lilac-inesis?” I suggest.

He considers it a moment. “Nah, can’t get it to roll off the tongue. Too awkward. Also, doesn’t really sound like a color?”

“Bartok taught me to fly,” I add.

“Uh-huh,” Darren says, “more like Bartok taught you to hover three inches off the ground.”

I stare at him.

“What? I watched the documentary,” he tells me.

“You’ll have to be more specific than that,” I say.

“History channel?” he offers, “development of flight?”

“With the planes?” I ask.

Darren sighs. “The planes were only like half of the first day.”

I nod at him.

“Look, never mind, I don’t make fun of your hobbies,” he says.

I shake my head at him and tut. “You make fun of my hobbies all the time, Darren.”

“I’m not making fun of your hobbies,” he protests loftily, “I’m in fact making fun of your proficiency within the realm of flying around like a lunatic.”

“I’m actually doing very well,” I tell him, taking a dainty bite of my lasagna. “Bartok says so, and she’s trained more people than anyone else in the state.”

“Oh, well, if Bartok says so,” Darren agrees.

“Why, you think she’s sugarcoating?” I ask.

“Oh, no, wouldn’t dream of it,” Darren says. “You’re probably her most proficient student ever. Did she even let you try any of the stabilizers?”

I pout at him.

Darren grins. “Well, the important thing is that she makes you feel like you’re good at flying.”

“Yeah, real important when I have to use one of these in an emergency,” I agree.

“Confidence promotes competence,” Darren says, “believe in yourself!”

I flip him off.

“I heard,” Darren says, punctuating with a stick, “that she actually turns off the gloves.”

“When she’s flying?” I ask.

He rolls his eyes at me. “Dumbass, no. When she’s working with armor-trained personnel.”

“Okay,” I say.

“Well?” he asks, taking a bite of his stick.

“What?” I say.

“Did she turn off your gloves or not, numnuts?” he says.

“I don’t know,” I tell him.

Darren furiously chews up the rest of his stick. “You don’t know? When you tried to use them, did they work or not?”

“I didn’t try to use them,” I say.

“Bullshit,” he says, pulling another stick out of a foil – oh, they’re cookies. “You’ve been using the gloves for years, what do you mean you didn’t even try?”

“They do a different thing on the flying kind,” I tell him. “She told me not to use them.”

“But if you didn’t even try, how do you know whether she was coddling you?” Darren says, snapping a stick-cookie in half and crumbling chocolate bits onto the table.

“Well, look, if I had reflexively used them, obviously it was correct to add in a preventative measure to stop me from using them,” I say. “And otherwise it doesn’t make a difference.”

“How doesn’t it – it’s like putting up fucking baby gates,” Darren says, “like she’s bubble-wrapping the whole house because she thinks you are a literal baby, Travis.”

“She does not think I’m a literal baby,” I snap.

“Oh, yeah, because positive reinforcement works so well on adults,” Darren says.

“All kinds of reinforcement work well on adults,” I tell him.

“That’s only because you can’t teach babies to fly,” Darren says.

“Also, yelling is negative reinforcement,” I tell him.

“Not if you yell when people do things correctly,” he argues.

I stare at him.

“You were wearing a diaper,” he adds.

“It’s not a diaper, Darren, they’re the exact same shape.” I steal one of his twig-cookies.

Darren snickers. “‘Come here, baby, come to momma, that’s it, kiddo, just one more step –’”

I flip him off with both hands.

“So how many steps did you make it?” he asks.

“Across the whole gym, fuck you very much,” I tell him.

“Did she tell you she was proud of you?” he asks, making that fucking face.

“Laces told me he was proud of me,” I say, “and he was definitely being sarcastic, so there you go, are you happy now, you can go home.”

“You know how all the videos she shows you have cartoon animals in primary colors?” he says.

“I do not know that,” I tell him, “the instructional videos she gave me – which I watched on my own time – had full technical specifications and navigation diagrams.”

Darren considers that for a moment. “Maybe it’s just Prime Mover she thinks is a baby.”

“Prime Mover is a baby,” I say.

“He’s the exact same age as you,” Darren says.

“Yeah, let me know when he fucking acts like it,” I say.

“Did he do something in particular?” Darren asks, looking kind of worried.

“No?” I say, “probably not? I mean I heard he photocopied his ass for everyone again and hung pictures up in all the break rooms.”

“Was that an actual person’s ass?” Darren laughs. “I assumed that was pulled off Google.”

I shake my head. “This is why I have to stock my office with my own supply of coffee.”

“Yeah, that’s why,” Darren says, mouthing ‘have to’ at me.

“Speaking of,” I say, getting up, “can I get you anything?”

Darren hands me his mug. “Decaf. Don’t need any more trouble sleeping.”

“Sure.” I take the mug. It has a baby crake on it. I must be tired, too, because it almost seems to wink in sympathy.

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Risk Analysis

I stare at the kids. They’re lying down in the middle of the gym playing Risk, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t hear a word I just said. I mean, that’s not my problem, the same note’s been put in their mailboxes and sent to their agency accounts, but I still feel like announcements are something I’m not being paid to just yell at the air.

“Also, watch out for werewolves,” I add, droning on in the same oh-look-notices voice.

Jailbait flips me off.

“You’re not allowed to be a dick to us, Teke, we’re traumatized,” Caffeine says, not even looking up from where he’s moving little blue pieces.

“Especially me,” Gatling says, waving his wrist around to show off his cast.

FiendPuncher rolls her eyes and takes the opportunity to line all the extra green pieces up next to her, and seems to be succeeding admirably in ignoring the fact that she’s directly in between Gatling and Enigma Machine, who has now removed his shirt, which Jailbait makes some sort of dirty joke about just a little too quietly for me to make out (or possibly that doesn’t scan because she’s using random slang I’m just too old and lame to know), and Caffeine waves an encompassing hand as if to say, see, there you go.

Psybeam’s just minding his own business taking over Australia.

“Okay, maybe we can work on running skills,” I say to them.

“Oh, no,” Enigma Machine says, hand to his chest, where he still hasn’t put his goddamn shirt back on, isn’t he cold? “We couldn’t possibly. Running is just so – stressful.”

“We’ll run slowly, then,” I say.

“I just don’t know if I can do that,” Caffeine says, with a shit-eating grin.

“Nobody’s going to listen to me if I say to run laps, are they,” I state more than ask.

“Nooooooooot likely,” FiendPuncher says, intently floating a few inches off the ground to scrutinize the board.

I feel like maybe she’s a little too into this game. Or maybe that’s just paranoia. Everyone likes a little Risk, right? It doesn’t have to have anything to do with actually taking over the world.

“What about yoga?” I ask. “You guys liked yoga.”

“Yoga’s gay,” someone says, one of the boys, I don’t know which one, because I wasn’t looking, and, honestly, it’s not really out of place from any of them, even after that talk.

“So gay,” Jailbait agrees hastily.

“I liked it,” FiendPuncher mutters, even though she’s completely not on my side on this one, because no matter what I suggest she’d going to fight tooth and nail to keep playing that game.

I may be reading too much into it.

“Do you,” I say, “do you guys want to punch stuff?”

I mean, I think I can get a bunch of pads and bags and stuff out here fairly quickly, what with the influx of interns. Some of them have got to be bored. And it’s not like Sensei Domino’s not showing up sooner or later. And they love punching; it’s their favorite.

I get a bunch of equivocal responses that aren’t even whole words.

Damn, maybe they really are traumatized.

Dr. Jerry shows up, waving Enigma Machine over. He sighs, but gathers up his things and walks out of the room after the shrink. He at least puts his shirt back on before he goes. I sit down in his spot, reaching over to pick up the dice.

“I guess I’ll play in,” I tell them.

To a one, they all cross their arms at me. “No.”

“What?” I ask, “why not?”

FiendPuncher tips her head at Lisa. “We want Lisa to take over.”

“Take over the spot,” Caffeine clarifies, “not take over the world.”

Lisa grins at me as I watch her slip the wristband over her wrist. “What? Sportsmanship. Can’t use my unfair advantage.” She laughs slightly, covering her mouth with her hand.

“Is it really that much of an advantage?” I ask her.

She tilts her head at me, scrutinizing for a minute. “Yeah.”

“Okay,” I say, frowning.

She sits down next to FiendPuncher, who, beaming, scoots closer to her. “I can call people’s bluff. It doesn’t make for very cooperative gameplay.”

I stare at the board, slightly put out. “It’s not even supposed to be a cooperative game.”

She shrugs, and leans over to play a piece. Gatling looks down her shirt. Caffeine glances at her, very quickly (although, with him, that could’ve been a long, leisurely look right there), and looks away again, back at the board. Psybeam seems to be trying very hard not to look, and is definitely starting to develop a blush. Jailbait pouts, leaning over slightly herself. I can’t tell whether her look is jealousy.

I float a piece of paper up in front of Gatling’s face when he doesn’t stop looking. I think it’s the rulebook. He bats it away and glares at me. Lisa buttons the top button of her polo, grimacing and tugging it away from her neck after she does.

“Do you ever wear the ribbon?” Psybeam asks.

Lisa’s gaze flicks over to him. “Sometimes.”

“Don’t you have to tell everyone you meet?” FiendPuncher asks.

“Only if they talk to me.” Lisa wiggles her wrist at them. “I wear one of these a lot of the time so I don’t even have to do that.”

“It’s not so bad if it’s only when they talk to you,” Jailbait says. “It’s not like you’re a telepath. Telepaths have to inform everyone in thinking range.”

“It’s not so bad if you can just take their word that they understand what you mean,” Lisa says. “Meanwhile, I can tell when they lie about understanding, and I’m mandated to explain it.”

“I bet you look really pretty in green, though,” Caffeine says, and then clamps a hand over his mouth, eyes going huge.

Lisa stifles a smile.

Gatling smirks. “I bet you look better in –”

Oh, yeah, that’s definitely the rule book. I wonder what it’s doing being plastered to Gatling’s face every time he tries to finish his sentence.

They go around in circles, Lisa playing out what she says is Enigma’s strategy when I ask. I don’t know how she can tell – it’s still too early in the game to be interesting, so I can’t imagine there were enough data points. I also wonder if she’s figuring out anyone else’s strategy to mimic, once they leave for their appointments. I tap my fingers against my leg. It’s still going to be slow-going for a while.

I wonder if Dr. Skye will show up and take one of the other kids at some point so I can play in.

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Three Inches Up and Hover

“How familiar are you with these, anyway?” Laces asks.

“Not at all,” I tell him, staring at the flying armor. I wipe my forehead on my sleeve.

“You’ve got to be at least a little bit,” Bartok says.

“Well, unless they turn out to be exactly the same as the not-flying kind,” I say.

Bartok and Laces both nod enthusiastically.

I poke at it. Well, in that case, it looks okay. “What, everything’s the same, except the flying part? What’s the point, then?”

“Uh, ’cause it costs twice as much to roll out the flying kind?” Bartok tells me.

“And it’s a lot more dangerous to eject from something a couple hundred feet in the air,” Laces adds. “Which is why you’re being supervised.”

“There’s a reason I decided not to get certified for this kind,” I tell them.

“Oh yeah?” Bartok says, opening up the armor so I can step inside.

She’s really only half paying attention, asking more to be polite than to hear the answer, but it still brings me up short. I take the extra time to step inside the suit and try not to panic as it closes in around me. For fuck’s sake, it’s exactly the same. As long as I’m careful not to scrunch my toes.

“Takes years to certify,” I say, finally.

“I would’ve thought for sure it was because those Air Force Assholes make fun of you,” Laces says, “unless you went through one of the military programs.”

Bartok grins. “Yeah. One of the military programs.”

“I really don’t think, in the heat of battle,” I tell them, “I’m going to have either the time or the wherewithal to peel one of these off your unconscious body and put it on.”

“Make sure you take it off Laces preferentially,” Bartok tells me. “He’s got a much better chance than I do of maybe being latent.”

Laces flips her off.

I shift a little, easing into the warmups. I shouldn’t be so paranoid, the suit isn’t as sensitive as all that, I’m not going to go flying off by accident, but I still start out slow. It’s a little bulkier than the regular suits, and a lot heavier. That’s going to be the jets. I catch myself using my TK to balance, and reel it back in. It’s not going to do me any good to learn it if I can’t control it power-free.

“So, I hear you play the violin,” I say, stretching out my fingers and tapping them together.

Bartok grins. “You hear correctly.”

“Tell me that’s where you got your name,” I say, “this is all so much more confusing if it turns out just to be a happy coincidence.”

“Ooh, now I really wish I had a story prepared,” Bartok says.

“I’m still pretty sure that said ‘Bach’,” Laces tells her.

“Bach in no way has a k in it,” Bartok says.

“Oh, yeah, like we knew anyone who could spell.” Laces rolls his eyes.

Bartok shrugs. “Eagle actually spells better when he’s drunk, by about an order of magnitude.”

“I just think, if k was the only letter you could make out,” Laces says.

“B,” Bartok says, “it definitely started with a B.”

“I mean drunk enough to write that sloppily,” Laces says waggling a hand, “I don’t think anyone would’ve remembered who Bartok is, if they even knew in the first place.”

“What?” I say, finally, as I shift to practicing punches and blocks. Actually, it feels a lot like what Sensei Domino was showing me, and I’m beginning to get how annoyed he was that upstairs just wants us to skip that part and get straight to the flying around.

“I woke up one day to an electric blue sticky note on my forehead,” Bartok says, “and a shitty tape-recorded impromptu concert playing in the background.”

“It is absolutely possible to play the violin drunk,” Laces adds, “just not a good idea.”

“Shitty as in shitty playing?” I ask, “or shitty recording equipment?”

“Yes,” Bartok agrees.

“It’s okay, we got it played for us on repeat the rest of the day,” Laces adds. “To remind us how not to have hangovers.”

“And then I added a combination lock to my violin,” Bartok says, “because too drunk to get it open is absolutely too drunk to play it.”

“It’s not actually a combination lock,” Laces says. “It’s a sticker that says ‘go home you’re drunk’ with a vomiting smiley face.”

“Too drunk to remember that’s not a combination lock is definitely too drunk to play,” Bartok confirms stoically.

I look back and forth between them.

Bartok snorts and covers her mouth while her shoulders shake.

“No,” Laces says, “no, absolutely not. My mother said the exact same thing and she didn’t believe me either.”

I hold up my hands in front of me. “I believe you.”

“Yeah, no,” Bartok says. “God, would I not be on the same team as him if we were.”

“Not that we haven’t faked it for a couple of weddings,” Laces concludes.

Bartok shakes her head. “Fucking drunk assholes, man. I hate weddings.”

“I don’t know where everyone else gets this problem,” Laces says. “Literally no one has ever hit on me at a wedding.”

“That’s probably because you always use Bartok as a human shield,” I tell him.

Bartok hi-fives me. Carefully, because I’m still new to the suit. It’s okay. The pressure sensors and gyroscopes really are exactly the same, so it works out fine. Laces grins and shakes his head.

“Okay,” Bartok says. “Three inches up and hover.”

I frown. “Look, I don’t know –”

“Three inches up and hover!” Bartok screams, leaning in towards my faceplate.

I clench my fingers and toes, realize what I’m doing almost immediately, and relax, but not before I’ve shot about a foot off the ground. I adjust my grip on the foot controls slowly, drifting down to what I hope is three inches. Seeing my teammates eyeing it, I let my field drift out, and adjust my positioning to three inches exactly.

They give me golf claps.

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Case file: Crimson Bluejay – breaking and entering, unlawful use of powers, public indecency – memo

All agents are reminded to observe extra caution when dealing with unpowered individuals. Aside from higher risk of injury and death, media fallout can be enormous. Err on the side of criminality rather than villainism, but maintain extra vigilance even in the case of villains. Tread lightly, and if at all possible, call in one of the freelance teams. (Addendum: Yes, everyone has a permanent dispensation to call in the Superbitches or the Rocket-powered Cunts if there are any more flying civillains.)

Just a reminder that takedown procedures for flighted suits are as follows:

Villains (including vigilantes):

  1. Drive the villain to a deserted or low-population location. Rooftops work, assuming the suit is built to regulation or along standard lines. Avoid them with heavier suits, unless the building is condemned.
  2. Ground the villain. Note: only use devices to achieve this that are rated specifically to depower flight but maintain use of dampening and cushioning systems, and only if you can be certain such systems are in place. Never use a device that interferes with safety mechanisms, or on anyone whose use of proper safety mechanisms is in question.
  3. Depower the suit. Do this as quickly as possible, before the villain takes flight again. Shaped EMP charges are recommended over high-voltage discharge.
  4. If at all possible, remove the suit. Preferentially ask the villain to remove the suit themself. Note: remove any volatile components as quickly as possible.
  5. Determine whether the villain has extranormal abilities.
  6. If the villain claims any regenerative ability, prick tests are pre-authorized. If the test fails, ask permission for a full panel, and proceed accordingly. Unless any regeneration is noted, in the absence of a claim, you may proceed as if no such power exists.
  7. In the absence of any extranormal abilities, or without strong evidence of their existence, once cuffed, defer to local authorities in detainment and processing. Cuffs should be left with the local authorities until a full determination of abilities is obtained.
  8. If the villain exhibits signs of extranormal ability, proceed as normal.

Note: The villain always has a right to refuse a regeneration panel. In all such cases, proceed as if they do have regeneration abilities until verification from a memetic or mirror can be obtained. Wait until the statement is filed before cuffing the villain (if false). Until regenerative abilities can be falsified, continue to use the secondary cuffs, and monitor closely.

Other criminals:

  1. Attach a locator to the suit as quickly as possible. It generally works best with two agents obviously tagging the subject, with one applied more surreptitiously, although more backups are recommended in the case of gray hats.
  2. Identify yourself to the subject.
  3. If the subject is borderline, or close to villain reclassification, inform the subject of those actions which require anti-villain action. If the subject proceeds to engage in those actions, follow villain procedures as outlined above.
  4. Follow the subject. Herd the subject as much as possible away from populated areas.
  5. If the subject stops, follow normal arrest procedures. Cuffs may be used at the discretion of the arresting agent except in borderline or reclassified cases.
  6. If the subject does not stop, continue to follow them until they reach a stopping place. If they indicate they will proceed to the nearest police station, guide them in that direction. If they indicate they will proceed to the tower, guide them to intake. If they do not communicate with you, assume their communications equipment is missing or malfunctioning, and do not engage unless they reach villain cutoff. Subjects may also proceed to their home or a public place. Try to guide them away from public places. In a public place, attempt to arrest them as inconspicuously as possible. If they reach a private residence or other private property, proceed with arrest only if they appear to be breaking in. Otherwise, record the address and wait for a warrant. If you observe the subject removing the suit, wait until they have fully removed the suit to proceed with arrest.
  7. If the subject’s suit runs out of power, be careful to catch them, and call for immediate medical attention if necessary. If a subject indicates to you that their suit is nearly out of power, give them directions for safe landing procedures.

Unpowered criminals should be turned over to local authorities as soon as possible. If this is not possible, intake should proceed as normal, and the unpowered criminals should be housed in the secondary block. (Under circumstances where the secondary block is occupied by one or more extranormal individuals, unpowered criminals may be housed in empty offices or meeting rooms.) If you have reason to believe the criminal may be wanted by other authorities, check all databases. (On occasions where the criminal is wanted by more than one other authority, transfer custody on a first-come first-serve basis, with military authority overriding.)

Unless additionally charged with reckless endangerment, vandalism, or assault, agents are discouraged from charging unpowered individuals with resisting arrest. However, extranormal fingerprints may be taken to ensure compliance with fines and warnings. If the database shows a pattern of behavior of noncompliance, further action may be taken, including warrants by extranormal fingerprint. Agents are encouraged to perform such arrests at the subject’s home, if at all possible.

Criminals with extranormal abilities may be turned over to local authorities if use of such abilities was low during the most recent criminal activities. If there was no such use of abilities, criminals must be turned over to local authorities, except in such cases where the powers themselves are markedly dangerous, or when the criminal exhibits a pattern of behavior such that further use of powers in a criminal context is expected. (Without such a pattern of behavior, a rating of over 65% likelihood from patterns may be substituted.) A pattern of unpowered criminal conduct may be grounds for interference from the FBI’s extranormal division.

When dealing with unpowered criminals, procedures should be followed to the letter. Additionally, obscure any individualizing elements of the arresting team. Mask division is strongly discouraged from being involved in any such proceeding. Remember: if you do everything by the book, you avoid media frenzies and abuse of power accusations.

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You’re it.

“Tag,” Bartok says, dropping down from overhead and tapping me, then spinning away again.

A few feet away she sort of blurs into the wall. That’s a new one. I extend my field a little bit farther around me – up instead of out – and Laces tucks his legs up not quite fast enough. I shoot him. Whatever camouflaging thing they’ve added shorts out just before his suit goes dark, and he plummets, giving me a few seconds grace to grab him before he can hit the floor and gain traction. I tap him in the center of the forehead.

Then I run like hell before his suit comes back online.

He swoops up into the air again, looking down every couple of feet as he makes it up to starting height. Then he waves at us and flies straight for me.

It’s a fake out. It has to be. I just tagged him.

I shove out with all my TK at once – messy, it sparks a little – and he goes spinning off sideways, surprised, managing to pull himself out of his dive just before he touches the floor. Ha. He’s not used to my style yet. I step out of the way of a foam dart. Stop gloating, Travis, and get behind cover.

I dash behind something or other. I think some sort of giant beanbag. I remember these from gymnastics, all triangular and smushy, so we didn’t break our necks – I give it a poke – just a little bit of give and that squeak of plastic. Yep, give ’em a drab coat all you want. You can always tell where they’re from. Hunch notices me, and I duck around another corner, out of line of sight. Or, at least, I can’t see anybody. And I can hear Hunch going the other way.

I mean, I usually like a precog on my side, but he always strikes out when he’s up against Bartok or Laces. I’m thinking it’s a combination of Air Force mind whammy and whatever sort of power dampeners they manage to build into the suits. Less than normal, looks like, but then again, they can fly. Fair trade, probably. Also, someone’s crawling inside the tube next to me.

I pop my head in for a look.

Sass puts her finger to her lips and grins.

Okay, here’s someone I can team up with. Wait, isn’t it against the rules that –

She’s hovering six inches above the bottom of the tube. How the hell does she fly all scrunched into a ball like that? She slowly stretches out, so she’s floating on her stomach, and motions for me to catch her. I pin her there, nod my head towards her elbow, which she tucks into her side. Suddenly, half as much effort to hold her up.

I really kind of hate textbook telekinesis sometimes.

I have no idea what she’s planning, but she seems to be concentrating really hard on forming some sort of ball of – I know it’s not fire, it doesn’t even usually look like fire but – some sort of ball of fire. She gets ready to toss it out of the tube. The opposite end from me, thankfully.

“Sharp left, three feet after it exits,” she whispers to me.

I comply. I kind of wonder whether she’s aiming for Stranglehold. I’m pretty sure I heard him get tagged just after I stepped in here.

The fireball explodes. It doesn’t look much like fire anymore once it does, all dissipating dust and different colored streaks of light. Red, mostly, because it collides with one of Boomerang’s boomerangs, sending it into yaw right back into his stomach. He collapses with a grunt. Quiet.

Not quiet enough to stop Stranglehold from smacking him on the back of the head, screaming, “you’re it,” and streaking back up to the ceiling.

Sass snickers.

“Should I be worried?” I ask her. “Am I next?”

She shrugs mysteriously, and flies past me with a gentle push. I push back a little, and she does a barrel roll to correct her flight path.

Boomerang is aiming at Hunch and missing repeatedly. Hunch is just standing there, out in the open, ducking out of the way each time he launches a new stick. Boomerang is getting faster and more frustrated, and Hunch just keeps grinning at him. He can be such an asshole.

He winks at me as I step out of the tube.

Boomerang launches a larger than average sparkly red projectile made of solidified extranormal energy directly at me, and I reach out to divert its path. And shiver.

It’s not that I can’t get a grip on it. There’s lots of powers that aren’t quite physical enough, or at least not on our plane, that I can’t touch. It’s that it feels like absolutely nothing as it slips through my field. I can see it, I fucking know it’s there, but it’s just – not. I shove, anyway, not trusting my own aim when I can’t even sense it, but just sending a shockwave at it. Nothing. Looks like Boomerang has a null secondary. Arsenal pulls me away at the last second.

He’s panting and grinning like he’s having the time of his life. Oh to be young and carefree – I could wish my class acted like that when I set up games for them. To date, the longest they’ve spent was eight minutes, and that was on capture the flag. Three against three capture the flag is very boring.

Arsenal manifests a potato cannon. I’m not joking. It’s a huge, over-the-shoulder style, PVC pipe monstrosity, and he points it up in the air, aiming it in rapid sequence at two of the flying figures.

The cool thing about his power is that he can effectively create an automatic potato cannon. One with unlimited ammo. (Well, not unlimited, but Eli knows better than to go at this until he passes out. I hope.)

It looks like Bartok and Stranglehold. They dodge potatoes left and right, well aware they’re been driven right into Boomerang’s sights. Bartok tries to spin away, and I yank her back into the path of the potatoes. She’s right on the edge of my field, so it’s not a hard yank, but she has to curl away from a potato as she does, right into Stranglehold – who’s it now, bitches?

Boomerang glances between them, like he’s not sure who to tag. Aw, come on, dude, you know how gauche it is to tag the person who just tagged you? Bartok. Pick Bartok. With a smirk, he heads for her, and I cheer a little. Arsenal elbows me to keep quiet. I set up a bounce field instead, keeping his potatoes spinning in the right direction to continue forcing the fliers down.

Boomerang throws a few of his sticks at her, and she knocks them away with – what is that, a staff? It is. It’s a tiny extendable metal staff. And she actually knocks them away with it. How is that fair? It can get knocked away by something purely physical, but not my TK? And not even physical physical, like, that thing fold up in a pocket and probably doesn’t even weigh ten grams. That staff had fucking better be enhanced.

Stranglehold seems to be incredibly amused by this, and has started using his force field to deflect potatoes at both of them. Neither of them take the time to shoot him glares. Arsenal stops shooting potatoes at him, though.

“What,” I say, “getting tired?”

“You have no sense of fair play,” Arsenal tells me. “Hunch is going to call time any minute.”

“Guess that means he wins,” I say, “he’s been tagged, what, twice?”

“I’ve only been tagged once,” Arsenal informs me, beaming.

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Coffee

“Shit,” I say, taking back the second empty gift card from the glaring barista, wondering whether I should bother trying the third because I think it had something on it still but I may kind of be holding up the line.

I mean the line is only Perry, who thinks this is hilarious, because she’s horrible.

And anyway, it’s a moot point now, because I just put both of the empty ones back in with the one I’m not sure is empty. Fuck. I hand over my usual credit card, hoping that it’ll go through, because that Keurig might have put me over the limit, but, look, it’s a really long way from my office to the break room, okay.

The barista just raises an eyebrow at me.

I hand him my backup card.

It gets declined. Of course it does. There’s going to be a fraud hold on it now and I’m going to have to call my bank because the last place I used it was back home and not since last month. And my backup-backup’s expired. Goddamn it.

“Look,” the barista says.

“No, no, just give me a minute,” I tell him.

Where the hell is my debit card?

Oh, motherfucking shitbeans on toast. I left it at home. This is what I get for making fun of Perry forgetting her wallet, honestly, this is some instant karma right here, this is why she’s laughing so hard. I hate her.

I have exactly a dollar fifty in cash and then I won’t be able to get anything from the vending machine. Perry, as it turns out, has thirty-seven cents. I need an ATM.

…shit.

“Sir,” the barista says, still glaring at me, “you’re going to have to–”

“It’s okay, I’ve got this one.” Tony! Here to rescue us!

I know I need coffee, because I’m pretty much ready to hug him around the knees and weep at his feet. Praise Tony, savior of the Almighty Bean.

“Get some cash, pay me back later,” Tony says.

“Tony, you don’t have to,” I say.

“No worries, Fox, I know you’re good for it,” Tony tells me, with a grin.

Which makes me grin back all the more sheepishly as I hand over my currency of last resort, and add, “no, I mean, you don’t have to, I have another card.”

He shakes his head at me as he takes it. “And here I was trying to help with your cash flow problems. But it turns out it’s just exactly the same on the other side of the fence.”

I rub the back of my neck. It feels staticky where the fuzz is growing back in at the edges; I need to trim the back again. I probably also blush a little, but not that much, and it’s not like anyone can tell except maybe Perry, but she’s laughing too hard to notice any of my tells and anyway she’s one to talk.

After that, Tony gives me a funny look and talks to Perry about cats for a while.

I kind of sip at my coffee and try not to look anyone in the eye. Judgement. Waves and waves of judgement. I don’t need to be an esper to tell that. I swear, the minute I hear something about food stamps, I’m out.

“You forgot your pain au chocolat,” Perry says, setting it on my head.

I let the bag slip off and catch it in my field, floating it around in front of me, and slipping the pastry out without touching it. If someone wants to make something of it, let them. I’m in no mood to deal with their bullshit today.

My pain au chocolat is delicious.

“We finally get to start filming,” Perry says. “I’m actually pretty happy I’m not still on vacation.”

Wait, filming what? “Wait, filming what?” I ask.

“You know, the tiny,” Perry makes some complicated motion with her hands.

I try to mimic it.

“The little model town, Fox, I told you about this,” Perry says.

“The little,” I repeat. “Right. Yes.”

“You know, you were asking if they made it train scale?” Perry adds.

“Yes,” I agree. “For ease of trains.”

“There aren’t any trains in the movie,” Perry says.

“You don’t know,” I tell her, “they might add one last minute.”

“Seriously, Trav, there aren’t any trains in the movie,” Perry repeats.

I shake my head and sigh. “Oh, well. At least there are little model storefronts and all.”

“Oh, it’s great, we had a real landscaper in and everything,” Perry says. “A lot of the foliage is actual plants. Teeny-tiny, very smol plants.”

“How does that work?” I ask.

“I have no idea, but tomorrow we’re going to set it on fire!” Perry gushes.

“Ooh,” I say, “real plants so they burn like real plants.”

Perry nods enthusiastically.  “Tara’s built all these itty-bitty tracks for the cameras, and little tiny replica cameras, because you know Tara, it’s great, we’re doing behind-the-scenes.”

“Behind what scenes?” I ask, because she’s dying to tell me, I just know there’s a whole thing here, whatever this is. I hope they don’t have an action figure of me out yet.

“Cardboard cutouts, mostly,” Perry says, “popsicle stick puppets. We’ve put all the cast on them – magazine photos – and we’ve been reenacting scenes.”

I laugh. I laugh harder when she pulls one out of her purse with her face on it – complete with a little yarn hairdo – and starts walking it around.

“Behind-the-scenes, see?” Perry says. “Puppet-me has to get puppet-people to their puppet-places, puppet techs have to set everything up, puppet hair and makeup does the yarn, you know?”

“That’s amazing,” I tell her, staring at this gallery quality photo of her, shrunk down and pasted onto a half-cent piece of wood, with its carefully combed soft woolly hair.

Perry snorts into her coffee, almost choking. “We’ve got pretty much the whole movie re-recorded – we’re using rehearsal audio for most of the actual script – set for co-release with theatrical.”

“Please tell me you’re going to sell this in hi def,” I beg her.

“Absolutely,” she agrees. “We’re going to see what we can salvage after we burn everything and make some kind of post-apocalyptic sequel, too.”

“A whole TV series, please, I beg of you.” I clasp my hands in front of my coffee.

She pulls another popsicle stick out of her bag. This one has my face on it – I recognize that photo; it’s from the beach – and tiny little yarn curls.

I stare at it. “Why is my hair purple?”

“Oh, we had too much purple left over after we did the lighting guys,” she explains.

I sort of stare at her, wondering whether I’m missing a pun or something.

Perry flips to a picture on her phone, and, no, she meant that as a factual statement. “It was some kind of solidarity thing. For what, I did not ask, but, yes, they literally all have purple hair now.”

“And me, too, apparently,” I add.

“Look, if you want purple hair, my god, yes, I encourage that,” Perry says, “I encourage you to grow it longer before you purple it, for optimum purplitude, and get some maybe lowlights in something darker, royal purple or something, some highlights in – I forget what I was saying.”

“I think you were saying it was just for funsies,” I tell her, “but honestly, Perry, you’re kind of freaking me out with how much you want me to have purple hair now.”

“One of the hair peeps does temporary dye,” Perry tells me. “Extranormal dye. 48 hours exactly, absolutely no side effects. Think about it. Think about it.

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Students

“Oh my god,” Enigma Machine says, “I so hate math.”

The kids are supposed to be doing yoga, because I don’t want to be stressing them out or anything, and I think they’re going to be (re)debriefed one by one during class, but they’re kind of just lying there talking about school and not even pretending on the poses. Of course, they want to know what’s with a bunch of bs I remember hating the living fuck out of from school myself, so I can’t really fault them on that, per se.

FiendPuncher gives him a skeptical look, but doesn’t say anything.

“Aren’t you really good at math?” Caffeine asks, instead.

Enigma blinks at him suspiciously. “I mean, yeah. I’m good at it. I can be good at it and hate it.”

Both of them shrug in response to that.

“I have to write ten pages on some book by Friday,” Jailbait gripes.

“What book?” FiendPuncher asks.

“Who knows?” she mutters. “Like anyone even read it, anyway.”

“I know,” Gatling agrees. “School assigns, like…so many books.”

“So many books,” Enigma agrees emphatically.

“They don’t take me that long,” Caffeine says, and mimes ducking while the others mime throwing crumpled up paper at him.

Or baseballs. I don’t know what they’re imagining. I’m just sitting here not bothering to try to get them to pay attention anymore, wondering if I should tell them to pay attention in school instead or something. I mean, shit, the books you get in English are like 100 pages long, just read them.

“You can just,” Psybeam says, uncertainly, “use SparkNotes. Or CliffNotes.”

“CliffsNotes,” FiendPuncher says.

“Cliff’s Notes?” Psybeam says.

FiendPuncher shrugs. “It’s named after someone, I think. Cliff, I guess.”

“Those are real?” Caffeine says.

I stare at him.

“I thought that was just a saying,” Caffeine says.

“I do,” Jailbait says, bringing the conversation back on topic. I guess. “Of course I use them, but it’s hard to make just that go on for ten pages. And my teacher checks margins and stuff.”

“Write, like, seven and a half.” Gatling shrugs. “It’s not like anyone calls you on it.”

“Yeah,” Jailbait agrees, “but still.”

FiendPuncher rolls her eyes.

“I think it depends on the book,” Caffeine says.

“What,” Psybeam says, “whether you read it?”

“I read some of the interesting looking ones,” Enigma says. “I read a one about mockingbirds or something last year. It turned out to be pretty boring, though.”

“No, dumbass, about how to pad your essays,” Caffeine says.

I really feel like I shouldn’t be suborning this discussion.

“I like to pad them with deconstructions of the text,” FiendPuncher says, sweetly, to distracted nods all around.

“I think,” Jailbait says, “it’s Shakespeare.”

“Oh, Shakespeare is a good one,” Caffeine says. “You can get really long quotes.”

“Yeah, and lots of people have said stuff about Shakespeare,” Enigma adds. “You can look up anywhere online and find stuff, and, you know, rephrase. Paraphrase, that’s it. It’s not even cheating.”

“Plus, it’s, like, Shakespeare,” Gatling says, “so, you know, you can just make stuff up, and everyone knows how confusing it is so they forgive you.”

“You can claim it’s artistic license or something,” Enigma agrees.

Caffeine nods. “And people argue a lot, so I bet you can find a critic who agrees with you.”

“I said that,” Enigma says.

“Sorry,” Caffeine huffs. “I was just agreeing with you.”

“I’m just going to watch the movie,” Jailbait says, with a sigh.

“Which version?” I ask, because I can’t keep quiet about that one.

“Version?” Jailbait says.

“It’s Shakespeare,” I tell her, even though maybe it even isn’t, “you can probably get a recording of it being performed as a play, which would work out pretty well.”

She shrugs. “Maybe.”

“There are always modern versions of them,” Gatling says, smirking. “Those are better because they’re in normal English and all.”

“Not all of them,” FiendPuncher mutters, but that one’s not actually a good suggestion and now I’ve made the mistake of thinking about that fucking film.

“Go with the BBC adaptations whenever you can,” I tell her, which is the only general advice I can really give at this point.

She sighs. “English is the worst class.”

“Math is the worst class,” Enigma says. “I thought we established that.”

“Science is the worst class,” Gatling says, “they make you read through a million safety procedures and then you don’t even get to do the experiment, which is watching water or something.”

“Spanish is the worst class,” Caffeine says, “like, when am I ever going to need to know Spanish, right? And then we learn the same thing, over and over. Just, more Spanish words.”

“I don’t take Spanish,” Enigma says, “I take German.”

Of course he does.

“I take French,” Jailbait says.

“Wow,” Gatling says, “look at you guys with your fancy schools that teach Foreign.”

“Fine, then,” Caffeine says, “lucky you.”

“I take Spanish,” Psybeam says. “I don’t think it’s that hard.”

“Oh, you don’t? Well, that’s surprising,” Caffeine says. “What’s your least favorite, then?”

“History,” Psybeam says.

The rest of the kids all chime in that history is, in fact, hella boring. So boring. The world’s boringest. FiendPuncher shares a look with me. Now, when I say shares, I mean she seems to know what we’re meant to be agreeing on, even if I don’t, but I give her a little smile, anyway. Then they go on to list out the stupidest facts they know about our presidents (and vice presidents). There seems to be a competition about pet names.

I don’t really recognize most of the facts, except the ones that are really common myths, but I’ve heard what most kids come through spouting about history, so I figure a lot of them have got to be wrong. I don’t bother correcting any of them, because they seem pretty much harmless. At least they’re not getting the broad strokes of history painted the entirely wrong color. Well.

“And they make us use bathroom passes like we’re children,” FiendPuncher says.

Oh, right. She’s still in middle school. Poor kid.

To my surprise, Gatling agrees, “oh, I know, only one boy and one girl at a time!”

Jailbait frowns. “We have to go during breaks, anyway. Then we get in trouble for being late to class. My French teacher totally gives me detention every time.”

“Why do you keep going during French class?” Enigma asks.

“Because screw him,” Jailbait says.

“I have enough time during breaks,” Caffeine says, but doesn’t even manage to draw a smile out of anyone this time.

Eventually, Sensei Domino turns up to rescue me.

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Range Time

“I’m just,” I gesture vaguely at a beach chair someone’s pulled out of the closet, presumably a while before I got here, “going to sit down here. For a minute.”

I sit. I misaim, and I have to tug the chair under me in flare of bright purple, but I sit.

“Wow.” Vector shakes her head. “You need another coffee, or a lullaby? Sleepy time?”

I grunt.

“Seriously. You’ve got to be used to the schedule by now,” Vector says, stretching her arm across her chest and shaking her head at me.

I let my head drop back. Part of the fabricy bit on the chair catches it. I stare at the ceiling.

“Maybe we should do this another time,” Vector offers.

I groan. Shake my head (slightly). Wave my hand, so the…the things…so they float up in the air and all around, and she can shoot at them or whatever, my god I need a nap.

“A little bit more spin, if you please,” Vector says.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her, spinning the targets around a little more. “I didn’t sleep.”

“Nightmares?” she asks.

I shrug. I don’t know if she can tell, because my eyes are closed, so I have no idea where she’s looking, but I don’t really have the energy to verbalize my shrugitude.

“Maybe you should find something to help you sleep,” she tells me.

“Have a ’scription,” I say.

“Not that,” she huffs. I can’t tell if it’s exertion or exasperation. “I mean, like a white noise machine or something. Maybe some waterfall sounds. Scented candles. Something.”

“Scented candles,” I tell her, “so do not help me sleep.”

“But you’ve played relaxing noises?” she asks.

I wave my hand vaguely. I hear a couple targets crash to the ground and shatter. I wince.

“Maybe a routine,” Vector elaborates, “take a nice warm bubble bath before bed. Drink some soothing tea. Read a very boring book.”

“I hate all three of those things,” I tell her, rubbing my temple.

“How the hell does a person hate bubble baths?” Vector grumbles. “This better not be some hyped up macho bullshit you’re pulling on me here, Trav.”

I groan at that one, too. “Fuckin’ is not. The bubbles make you feel all greasy, that’s all.”

“You probably need better bubbles,” Vector tells me, way louder, like she’s staring me right in the face.

I peel open one eye. Her face is directly in front of mine, a few inches away, with a suppressed grin and one eyebrow raised. I groan again.

Someone yells something lewd from the hallway, followed by a chorus of cackles.

Like, okay, it’s one sort of surprised chortle and it lasts about a second, but whatever.

“You really can do that in your sleep, huh?” Vector says.

“What?” I ask her, scandalized.

“The semi-randomized jumble. You do it unconsciously.” She shakes her head at me.

“Yeah,” I agree. “’s boring. Gotta memorize it.”

“No, I mean, actually unconscious.” She grins and shrugs.

“Fell asleep?” I say, and rub just a little bit of dried spit off my chin.

“Looks like,” she tells me, “or else you were being an asshole for no reason and just ignoring me when I talked to you. How far through my list do you remember?”

“List?” I repeat.

“Uh-huh,” she draws out, “of the kinds of bubble bath I said I liked that didn’t leave a soap scum feeling, because you asked me what I meant.”

“No,” I say, “no, I think that didn’t happen.”

Vector chuckles. “Keep this bitch in the air for me, will you?”

I hoist it up. It looks at me curiously.

I mean it doesn’t, I’m just sleep deprived, but I swear the robot has a personality.

“You’re gonna break the thing,” I warn Vector, gesturing vaguely at her guns, you know, carefully, so I don’t grab them or discharge them or anything.

She pulls out what I swear looks exactly like an airbrush, only it’s completely filled with little marshmallows. I wonder if I really am asleep, after all.

I don’t even know where she’s been storing it.

“They say,” Vector explains, “I need to work on my precision aiming. And yes, that’s not a misstatement – they actually have been telling that to all the deadeyes.”

“No why,” I say, and shake my head.

“Something about small targets, moving targets, lots of targets in a row,” Vector says. “I honestly have no idea, and I keep expecting a ‘change in management’ note.”

“Note?” I say, “management?”

I really need some coffee. No, hang on. I have coffee. I have it right here, I brought it with me. Where the hell is my thermos?

“You know,” Vector tells me, while the tiny tiny marshmallows go bop bop bop, “‘thank you for your patience during this change in management’ while they assign you ridiculous tasks.”

“Already got mine,” I tell her, and finally close my fingers around textured plastic molded to fit my hand just so, “have to get the kids to do the stuff.”

“No, that’s not what I mean.” She unscrews the cap for me. I have no idea when she got over here. The tiny multicolored marshmallows look like maybe little bits of foam, actually.

I stare at the cap and the bottle, wondering which is better to drink my coffee out of. “No, I know, they told me to give the kids a survey about would they recommend the program,” I say.

Vector snorts. “As opposed to what?”

“Private-run, I assume,” I tell her.

“Even Arsenal couldn’t find a private-run he liked,” she says.

“Hmm?” I ask. It turns out, more efficient not to pour it into a cup first.

“I mean,” she says, “our students are skewed to upperclass anyway. And you wouldn’t see that if there were any good alternatives.”

“Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make any,” I say.

She scrunches up her face and sort of half-raises one eyebrow at me again.

Wait, hang on, I don’t know which side I’m arguing on anymore.

“School programs,” I hazard a guess. “We should improve them.”

“Right.” Vector says. “Travis, maybe you should go home.”

“I’m just,” I say. “No. It’s fine. I. Will get someone to. Help.”

“Yeah,” Vector tells me. “You do that.”

I wonder where Alarm is.

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