The woman was wearing a lab coat over a tight fitting costume with geometric designs. She didn’t have much of a mask, it was just a set of tinted safety goggles with hints of the same geometric designs as her costume. She had her brown hair messily tied back and had a frown on her face.
Time seemed to freeze for a second.
“HAN-” I began to shout but never finished, her right hand came up and there was an incredibly bright flash. I ducked away and raised a hand to cover my eyes, I managed to make a slight gesture and materialized a shield of aether between myself and the villain.
And thank fuck I did, because not even half a second later there was a splashing sound that was swiftly replaced with sizzling and an unpleasent chemical smell.
“Get your ass out of here and call your fucking bosses,” the super growled as I rubbed my eyes trying to clear my vision. “This shit wasn’t part of the deal!”
My sight was still blurred, but I was able to see the white blob of the villains lab coat at least and I raised my rifle to shoot. A couple of pink blobs ran away, maybe through a back door? But the villain ducked back into the hall as I pulled the trigger and my shots went through the drywall.
Fuck me, this wasn’t good. Should I just run? I’d rather not wait for them to be reinforced, but I wasn’t sure if I could turn my back on this villain.
“I don’t know who you are working for,” the woman shouted from somewhere. “But you won’t be the first or last to try; if you need my work just fucking hire me! You fuckers can’t force me to do shit!”
Until I knew what she could do, I couldn’t risk it. She didn’t press the attack too much when I was blinded, even though now that my eyes had cleared I saw that the sounds I had heard earlier was from acid. It was in a puddle at the bottom of my shield, but it quickly drained as it burned its way through the floor and into the basement. Probably not something healthy to touch.
“I didn’t even know you were here!” I shouted back as I stepped around the puddle, “I was here for the two fuckers you let go! Knock yourself out and I’ll just leave!”
“Oh, sure!” The woman laughed, “here, just let me handcuff myself and offer you my ass on a silver platter. What could possibly go wrong?”
The house was now filling quickly with some sort of gas, but it didn’t bother me. This just illustrated that my preparations were good ones. I turned the corner and ducked back again as a ball of fire passed by me, what the hell was her power set?
I’d seen her create a flash, acid, what was probably a poison gas, and now fire. Her costume included a lab coat and safety goggles, so maybe some kind of chemical manipulation? But was she a creator, a transmuter, or a manipulator? Her range seemed to be touch based, whatever it was; she needed to use her powers and then toss whatever she made at me.
I created a shield in the hallway and turned it again, and another glob of fire came at me. It was some kind of liquid apparently because it splashed against my barrier and then fell to the floor.
“Fuck lady, are you trying to kill us both!?” The couch in the living room was already on fire, and it was spreading. I don’t know how long it would take, but if nothing happened this place would probably go up like a bonfire.
I quickly dismissed by barrier and raised it again further down the hallway. I moved forward again, but she slammed the door instead of throwing another ball of fire or acid at me. Smoke was starting to fill the hallway as I approached, kicking it down and materializing the aether in front of me as soon as I could; I didn’t have much room and I was pressed up against my shield.
Which turned out to be a mistake when the explosion hit. The shrapnel of the blast was stopped by the barrier, but the force went through it and threw me back down the hall. I cried out in surprise in pain, and even a bit of fear as I landed near the fire. Thankfully, my kevlar trench coat was resistant to fire and I quickly rolled away from the flames and back to my feet. I had dropped my gun in the hallway and I ran to pick it up; my shield was still up in the doorway, but it seemed like the room past it was empty. A breeze came through an open window where the villain had probably escaped.
Swearing angrily, I glanced behind me; it was an inferno. Even with my gas mask, it was getting hard to breathe. Even if the smoke couldn’t reach me through it, the fire still consumed the oxygen in the air and replaced it with smoke. I couldn’t stay here, and I couldn’t head back through the living room.
It could be a trap, but my only option was to go out through the window myself. This bedroom was on the front side of the house, so it would put me back in the front yard. I couldn’t take the time to worry about a possible ambush, I went through it and my boots hit the ground with a splat. I saw her strike a match and toss it to the ground and moved on instinct, leaping to the side. The place I had been standing went up like it was doused in oil, which it might well have been.
She was already running as I got back to my feet. Honestly, that might be just as well. I could head in the other direction and be out of here. But the sound of an engine briefly preceded a car speeding around the corner and screeching to a halt not far away.
The doors opened and a group of Somalis in Dhiig colors jumped out, already raising weapons. I raised my barrier towards them and soon bullets were hitting it, two of them even had automatic weapons! Still, it didn’t matter, it just made a pile of bullets in the grass in front of the shield I had materialized.
I kept my focus on the woman, shooting to try and keep her running or to incapacitate her altogether. Trying to hit a moving target while I was under fire myself turned out to be much harder than I had imagined it to be and she managed to hide behind another car on the side of the street. Lights were turning on in houses nearby, and I heard sirens in the distance, this entire night was turning out to have been a mistake.
A point that was driven home when another car came barreling down the street from the direction the villain had ran. It wasn’t the police, but more Dhiigs, and worse another costumed person stepped out.
The man didn’t bother with a mask and wore a costume of patchwork metal with spikes on the makeshift pauldrons. Fuck my shit, I recognized the guy, even if I could not remember his real name off the top of my head: Buzzkill, one of the Dhiig’s enforcers.
I realised I was simply standing still while being under fire and swore as I looked around for some kind of cover. Maybe it was my inexperience, maybe it was the nature of my power, but I had a tendency to stop moving in fights. That was going to get me killed if I didn’t fix the habit!
I ran towards the neighbors yard, vaulting the small fence between the properties even as the henchmen Buzzkil brought with him opened fire. Luckily, their aim was as bad as mine, because I wasn’t able to form a second shield to block their fire. Instead, I ended up ducking behind a tree as bullets whizzed by.
It was hard for me to tell, but it seemed like Buzzkill had gone to check on the female villain, but he was back now. The gunfire stopped, and he spoke:
“I don’t know who you are or why you are after Synthetical,” Buzzkill announced. “And normally, this is where I chop you up into little pieces and feed them to my dogs. But if you were really after the two shitstains who dealt out of here and nothing else, I might be able to forgive you if you come work for me.”
“And if you weren’t well known for killing idiots who accept your offers I might have considered it,” I called back, my mind racing. I peeked around the tree towards the gang aiming their weapons at me; seven henchmen, two villains. “Here is my counteroffer; all of your little minions drop their weapons, you all get back in your clown cars- taking Synthetics or whatever the fuck her name is with you- and we all go on our way.”
“Guess my answer,” Buzzkill lifted his hand and a metal disc grew in the air in front of his palm, rotating quickly. A second later, the chunk of metal was launched at the tree I was hiding behind, like some kind of horrible circular saw.
Not wanting to risk it, I threw up a shield in front of the tree and the saw stopped dead against it. But Buzzkill merely flicked his wrist and pulled it back before sending it towards me at another angle. The minions also started firing again and Synthetical seemed to be forming something in her hands.
The approaching sirens gave me hope, but the first one wasn’t the police, but a fire truck. Buzzkill smashed the metal he was controlling into it headfirst and the driver lost control, driving over a yard and crashing into another house.
I couldn’t just sit here and take their attacks; Buzzkill would figure out a way to strike at me eventually. No, I had to fight back. My heart was pounding as I whipped out from behind the tree, creating small gaps in my barrier for me to fire through. The Dhiigs were using their cars for cover, but Buzzkill had summoned another giant spinning saw that he was using as a shield. Still, my shooting at least forced them to put their heads down.
Until my clip ran out of ammo anyways; I had to duck back behind the tree to reload. As soon as I did, Buzzkill slammed his flying saw into the tree I was hiding behind. It made an unholy screeching sound as it began to cut right through the trunk! My hands were shaking so much it made reloading hard, and I just barely managed to materialize a bit of the aether against the rotating edge of the blade, stopping its rotation entirely.
I popped up again, shooting as I stood. I managed to catch one of the thugs in the shoulder, and instead of heading back to the tree I used my shield to help allow me to retreat between the two houses to the backyard. The house on my left was completely in flames now, with fire peaking out from the windows and casting the fight in a hellish orange light.
Synthetical took the opportunity to toss something towards me and another explosion occurred, behind which Buzzkill advanced. They were pressing me back, but they were not able to really harm me, but I couldn’t let my guard down.
The police had arrived now, and the thugs were peeling away to fight them, but the two villains remained focused on me. At least until a silver streak dropped out of the sky behind them! A man wearing a silver suit with a golden cape and glowing radiantly like a star landed, cracking the pavement where he hit the ground.
He raised his hands, his right pointing towards Buzzkill and his left towards Synthetical. Buzzkill managed to shield himself with his metal discs, but Synthetical was sent flying by a blast of silver light. With heroes and the police here, it was my que to leave, and I turned to leg it out of here.
I started running, planning to take a circuitous route back into the woods. I spared some of my breath to curse; tonight had been one fuck up after another, a net loss for sure. Shit, and I really needed to interrogate them for some more information.
I burst through a few yards and into the next street over, and kept running. Two motorcycles were racing down the road, and then they suddenly turned towards me!? One of the riders jumped off their motorcycle towards me, still dozens of feet away. The motorcycle braked and turned away, seeming to park itself without a driver. The driver meanwhile, was intercepted by a reflexive barrier on my part, and was stopped dead in midair. It was hard to tell the color, but the skintight bodysuit and mask screamed hero.
My distraction cost me, the other motorcyclist- definitely another hero- had smoothly braked and slid by me, drawing some kind of pistol from his waist. My eyes widened, but I was too late in trying to form a barrier; a flash of light caught me in the chest, and I stumbled back.
“Fuck me,” a young male voice called out, a Youth Fellowship member? “He’s got body armor. I told Starstuff that limiting my kit just to non-lethal shit would come back to bite me!”
The female hero dropped to the ground, and I realised that it wasn’t the darkness that made her costume’s color hard to figure out, it was that she was partially transparent and only becoming more so!
“Yeah, yeah.” She dropped down to the ground, landing in a low crouch. “Just leave this to me, ok?”
“Or,” I interrupted them before they could decide to attack me. “We could all just go on our way. If you want to go fight the Dhiig ka badan Biyo, you can be my guest. I’m no villain.”
“Sure you’re not,” the boy snorted. “You are just a guy going for his nightly run who happens to be armed and armored to the teeth and wielding powers. Clearly, we just made a mistake.”
“Yeah, you did, because none of that is illegal.” The girl was slowly shifting her position, and it was hard to keep an eye on her. “I’ve got a license and I know my rights, you’ll be lucky if I don’t press charges.”
“Oh come off it,” the girl sighed. “You think you are the first villain to try and pull that shit? Show us your license then for a start and I might consider what you are saying.”
“Don’t even bother Junglecat,” the boy seemed amused as he talked to his partner. I didn’t know much about Junglecat, but I did know she was from the Youth Fellowship, so that was one theory confirmed. “They always give the same response.”
“I guess you’ve heard people point out that Youth members don’t have the authority to ask them to produce a license a lot, huh?” I said dryly, it seemed like this conversation was inching towards a fight. “But look, I don’t really have non-lethal options here. I can’t say I mind popping a shot at Buzzkill, but I really am not a villain and I am not interested in shooting heroes.”
“So, you’ll surrender?” Junglecat said in a fake hopeful tone.
I sighed. Well, there was no point in letting go of the initiative this time. I swung my rifle around and put started putting rounds into the boys motorcycle as he jumped off of it. He didn’t quite hit the ground though, his boots seemed to have a glowing field beneath them that he was skating on top of. Obviously a tinker.
I kept Junglecat at bay with the aether as I forced the tinker to retreat by shooting near him. My mind was racing, ending up in a fight with heroes was already bad, but Junglecat turned this into a worst-case scenario. She was an Enhancer, mostly focused on speed and agility, but she was still strong enough to toss grown men around. The boy was probably either Springs or Blastron; they were the only two Youth Tinkers in Rochester, and since he wasn’t using anything resembling clockwork that would make him Blastron.
Escaping through the woods while running from Junglecat was an exercise in futility, and I wouldn’t put it past Blastron to have repaired his cycle in a few minutes if I tried running through the streets. This left me with almost no options. I had to disable these two if I wanted to escape, and now I was keenly feeling my lack of non-lethal options.
Turning on Junglecat while moving and weaving to avoid shots from Blastron, I tried to hit her legs. However, once she backed off from trying to get past my barrier I found that she was capable of dodging bullets! How the fuck was that supposed to be fair!? I ducked as Blastron sent another shot my way; I couldn’t use my barrier to block the shots because I needed it to keep Junglecat back. If Junglecat got close to me, it was all over. Though I was not sure if the aether would stop his shots at all, if they were pure energy they would probably pass right through.
I caught another hit in the shoulder and stumbled, I couldn’t keep letting him shoot me. I don’t think his weapon even broke the ceramic plates in my armor, but leaving a tinker alone sounded like a good way to get my ass kicked. Unfortunately for him, his armor was not nearly as effective as mine was, and he shouted in pain as a bullet went through his kneecap.
“Blast!” Junglecat half screamed and half growled, and then leaped straight up over my shield! She landed only a few feet away from me and lunged forward, grabbing me and tossing me like a sack of clothes. I accidentally pulled the trigger as she did, and a second later I was hitting a mailbox, snapping it off, and rolling onto the grass.
I was dazed, but I couldn’t stay down! I tried to get to my feet, staggering, and expecting at any second to get hit by Junglecat. My head was spinning, and goddamn did everything ache! But I managed to get up, and saw that Junglecat was down. That accidental shot when she threw me, I must have hit her!
“Fuck,” I said, as I limped a bit closer. “Are you ok?” God help me if I had killed a hero, I’m not even sure I would forgive myself.
“What the fuck do you think you bastard?” She hissed at me, “You fucking shot me!”
“It’s not like I wanted to!” I started backing away, “I warned you that I didn’t really have other options!”
“Fuck me,” she groaned. “First all that bullshit yesterday and now I get taken down by some nameless fuck of a villain.”
“Well fuck you too!” I started half limping away, “If you are well enough to curse me out, you are well enough for me to leave alone. And, for the last time, I am not a villain! The name is Aether and I am going to kick the villains and gangs in the teeth! Remember this, because I am going to leave you, but any villain that crosses my path won’t be so lucky if I have a chance. When I put a villain down I put them down for good!”
I really was not able to run, but I did manage an undignified half-limping jog. This part of Stewartville was basically right next to the woods and river, you didn’t have to go very far to leave the residential area and be out of the town altogether. I couldn’t head back to where I had crossed the Root, but I could take a quarter mile slog through a field and reach an old bridge that wasn’t listed on any maps I had seen.
I normally wouldn’t consider using it, it hadn’t received any upkeep, probably for decades; if I wasn’t careful I would not be surprised for a board to break and send me straight down into the river. But beggars can’t be choosers, and it wouldn’t take the heroes long to get even more backup. That's why heroes were so strong; if you start a fight with one, another two will be on their way over. They will just keep coming and outnumbering villains until they overwhelm them, because basically all heroes work for the Fellowship and work together.
Hopefully anyway, I thought to myself as I stumbled over a protruding root hidden by the dark and the shrub. My desire for non-involvement with the Fellowship notwithstanding, I really, really, did not want the villains to win.
That would just be shitty.
I found the bridge easily enough; it would have been far more difficult in summer when the grass and bushes had really grown. Now, I just had to cross an officially condemned deathtrap that was maybe four times my age and abandoned for half that. It is happy thoughts like that one that really keep me motivated to move forward. My cynicism and sarcasm on the other hand, that helped me deal with the fear that I would escape getting torn in half by Buzzkill only to die drowning in water I could stand in because I fell and broke my legs!
It was an old wood and metal bridge; iron, if the rust was any indication. It had either never been painted or the paint had worn off decades ago and the weather had done the rest. The wooden planks were stained, not like a stained floor but rather like parts had succumbed to mold and time. Well, I couldn’t actually see that bit right now, but I knew it was there.
I kept to the edges of the bridge as I crossed, trying to focus and test each step I took. Honestly, having to slow down after all the earlier intensity was wreaking havoc with my ADHD; my thoughts were wandering all over the place. I was about halfway across the bridge when I realised that I could have used my mask to look up who the villain I was facing was and didn’t that make me feel like a monumental idiot. Well, all things considered, if I had tried the camera probably wouldn’t have been able to handle the mix of dark night and bright flames. Still, I could search now, I suppose.
“Info, display on, info search.” I paused half a second for the chime signaling that the device was ready and then said, “Villain, Synthetical.”
Funnily enough, it turns out trying to read a webpage while running from heroes and villains was a really shit idea. My heart nearly stopped when a board cracked under my foot, but the bridge held until I made it to the other side. Still, with a few quick commands I was able to navigate to the supers wiki.
“Info, read page; info, display off.” I commanded, turning off the image and musing that at the very least I would have something to listen to during my extra long hike.
“Synthetical. Villain. Powers. Synthetical’s powers are not fully understood. Based on altercations with the Minneapolis Fellowship, it is believed that she is able to create elements and chemical compounds and she generally manifests the substances with her hands. It is also believed that Synthetical’s power grants her resistance to damage from chemicals as well.
In combat, Synthetical has been noted to use corrosive, flammable, and explosive substances. She forms these substances in her hands before throwing them towards the person she is fighting, but she has been known to set explosive traps and to use chemical gasses.
Outside of combat, she uses her powers to create synthetic drugs and medicines. She is not able to create new chemicals by herself, but can replicate even Tinker designed compounds. Synthetical is known to sell these substances in large quantities to gangs in the Twin Cities area.
Warning: Synthetical is not known for attacking civilians unprovoked, but civilians are strongly advised to avoid contact; chemicals and substances around her may be highly corrosive or toxic, and may not always be visible to the eye. If spotted, civilians should quietly and calmly leave the area and contact local police and Fellowship personnel as soon as it is safe to do so.”
“Fuck!” I jerked my head back and swore as a branch, invisible in the darkness, slapped against my mask. Now that I was further away, I had less fear and anxiety and more anger. Tonight had been… Eye opening, to say the least.
“Info, stop. Info, shut down.” I didn’t need to hear more, and I had no reason to let myself get tracked.
I really should stay focused, but I don’t think I can. My mind was in overdrive; tonight was a failure and I was feeling safe enough that I couldn’t keep my thoughts away. Was this stupid? Fuck yes it was, and I knew it. There was almost certainly heroes and villains that could be tracking me, or there could even be a precog sitting on my car’s hood waiting for me to arrive already.
I wasn’t out of the woods yet, literally or figuratively. And yet...
I wasn’t sure how close I had actually came to being killed. In theory, because my costume was very literally made to take armor piercing rounds, the hand guns and submachine guns the regular gang members had probably couldn’t kill me unless I took a shot to the head. So as long as I kept Buzzkill from fucking me up, I might be too much of a turtle to really need to worry. But seriously being shot at… I had really underestimated how much that would affect me; half the reason I was stumbling and tripping so much in the dark was because my entire body was shaking violently.
Plans. I made plans for how to do this, and because it had worked once I had trusted them again. But it was obvious that I had been lucky. I had planned to avoid villains and mutants as much as possible, and I had never intended to ever to fight heroes at all, but what had made me blindly trust that I could even do that?
By the time I made it to the edge of the woods, I was exhausted. This was another thing I had failed to plan for: the accumulated fatigue of hauling my armor and rifle around. Every part of my body ached, and some far worse than others, because I was a fucking stupid idiot and had decided to do this when I was already injured!
I reigned my focus back in, I needed to take some time to scout out the area where I left my car. Getting ambushed here would be bad, and my thoughts bouncing around would not help me in this.
There was no one by my car, but I didn’t approach yet. I was paranoid enough to do a small circuit around the edge of the woods, checking to see if someone was waiting from some hidden vantage point to ambush me. I didn’t find anyone, and dragged myself to my car; even more terribly tired now that I knew my paranoia was unwarranted. My key was in the ignition, and I was on my way.
I took a different way out, exiting onto a different highway and making my way back through a mix of back roads. And again, my thoughts found me.
My first mistake, first one that wasn’t precipitated by my enemies actions anyway, was that I forgot to use my mask to identify Synthetical. It wasn’t hard to guess her powers, but knowing about her tendency to set traps might have made me more prepared when I jumped out the window. However, while it had seemed fine when I was testing it at home, listening to the wiki page being recited after a fight made me consider what it would be like to do that during one.
The information on a wiki page was arranged for reading, obviously. But what I needed was more of a dry and concise list. Having to listen to a couple of minutes for information that could be relayed in a couple of seconds was a big issue.
The second mistake: I hadn’t brought my pipebomb with me. I could have used it to push back or maybe even eliminate the groups that had come to reinforce Synthetical. My power was purely defensive, I relied on tools and weapons to fight. Not having a way to deal with numbers could have killed me.
And in my escape, I had realised my third mistake: I had no non-lethal options. I hadn’t really thought of it as an issue when I was preparing my equipment the first time. I had thought I wouldn’t have any trouble shooting the people I was going after, and while that was harder than I thought it would be, I have to say I was mostly right. I’m not nearly as shaken as novels and movies had made me think I would be, although I had a few nightmares.
But the heroes… Hell, they weren’t even adults, just kids my age. I might go to school with them; for all I know, I just shot someone I know personally. And they didn’t deserve to get shot at, which really made all the difference to me. Hard drugs destroy lives, so at the end of the day is there much difference between selling drugs and pulling a trigger? And if so, does it really matter if I shoot a dealer? Even if they die, I’ve saved more lives than I’ve taken.
...I honestly cannot tell if that is sophistry or not.
The main point is, I don’t want to kill heroes and I need a way to stun people I want to interrogate. So I’ll have to look into my options, some kind of stun gun maybe? Can those knock people out or do they just knock them down? I feel like I saw a video of a regular man being tased and not even reacting, but maybe there are other options.
Those were my three main mistakes, but there were a lot of little issues as well. Actually, I can’t lie to myself and call them little, they just were not the kind of thing I would directly call a mistake. The most obvious example I could think of, as I finally reentered Rochester, was the way I used my power. I have had my powers for a couple of months now, and I have gotten better with practice.
When I first got my power, I could only make solid, contiguous, areas of the aether materialize. It took a decent bit of time- and more than a few migraines- before I could make a hole through it that I could shoot through. Experimenting with my power often caused headaches, but I needed to find out if I could do more than just produce one barrier. I knew I could do it on a small scale, but it was ridiculously hard to try and do it with anything large enough to shield me.
And I feel that this part is a necessity, because currently I hardly moved when fighting. I just stood or sat in place, hiding behind my barrier because I couldn’t place another until I had dismissed the one I currently had. In short, if I wanted to move to a new spot, I would have to get rid of my current protection and shield that area instead. With at least two shields, I could leapfrog them and move around without having to worry about getting shot before I made it to safety.
Hell, I needed to make my power more instinctive overall. Hindsight being perfect, I realised that I could have used my power to create a platform when I was trying to climb up the river bank. Or I could have used it when going across the bridge, just to be on the safe side. I was treating it like a tool when I needed it to be an extra limb!
I pulled into the garage and made my way back to the shed; a brief check revealed my armor to be basically undamaged. Dirty, I would have to get it cleaned- which was another thing I had never thought of- but it was undamaged even by Bastron’s shot. I suppose that is a good warning for me as well about the limits of non-lethal weapons, he didn’t even damage my coat!
My net profit for the night was in the red. Honestly, I hadn’t lost too horribly much, but I was down ammo and a filter for my mask. More importantly, I had the shit beaten out of me and God damn it but I felt like I could hardly move at this point. Everything hurt, and noticing that it hurt made me notice that the ache had seeped down and was bone deep.
I hobbled back to the house; did I even want to eat dinner? No, I really fucking didn’t, but I would anyway. One shitty thing about ADHD medication is that it suppresses hunger, so if I was feeling hungry, that often meant I was really damn hungry. I had to remember to eat whenever my parents weren’t around, and forcing myself to do it now was the right thing to do.
Of course, this was an obvious example of my last issue: sticking to plans and ideas even when I really shouldn’t. “I should just go to bed now,” I thought to myself as I robotically heated and ate the canned soup. “But it would just feel so wrong…”
This was actually a mix of issues, I suppose. A tendency to follow previous plans even when it became a bad idea and the fact that I probably didn’t have enough information to be making these plans in the first place. My plans so far… Well, I had essentially hoped that I wouldn’t run into villains or mutants. Sure, I had assessed the chances, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t relying on luck. There are always chances that something can go wrong, but a plan that actually relies on luck is a bad fucking plan.
So I needed information, help. But where would I even get it? I had no clue, and honestly I was hardly able to think now. It took a monumental amount of effort to not flop onto the bed and instead to lower myself gently onto it. The only benefit to my exhaustion was that I was able to fall asleep even with all the aches I had.
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